Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Is That A Monster in the Closet, 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.

Charlie Boone had just finished tying his shoes when his cell phone rang. He grabbed it up off the nightstand by his bed, and broke into a smile when he saw who was calling.

"Hi, Kip. You on your way over?"

The phone sighed at him. "Charlie, is this your idea of a Halloween prank?"

Charlie's smile slipped away. His boyfriend sounded upset. "Huh? Is what my idea of a Halloween prank?"

He heard a short intake of breath over the phone. " wasn't you? So where did it come from?"

"Where did what come from? What is it, Kip?" Kippy didn't answer right away, and Charlie felt the first nip of worry inside. "Are you okay? Is something wrong?"

"No. I mean...well...I don't know. I'm okay, but you should come over, Charlie. I really can't explain this on the phone."

Charlie nodded, feeling an urge to hurry now. Kippy sounded upset and worried, and he didn't play games with things like that. Charlie would just be wasting time now asking more questions. "Okay. I'll be right there, Kip."

He heard his boyfriend sigh again, sounding frustrated, as well. "Just come on in and come up to my room. I'll be waiting. Bye."

Charlie shook his head after the connection was broken, and turned off the phone and crammed it into his pocket. Kippy had sounded very strange. Not that that was so unusual these days, because Kippy lived in a world that was ever so slightly strange. Charlie did, too, and it had become the new normal for both of them, what with elves and aliens visiting all the time, and starships flying about the heavens. Charlie had gotten used to it, and even accepted the idea that the rest of their lives were destined to be interesting.

But there was no timing to any of this strangeness, and they never knew now when something weird might happen. Kippy normally embraced these new adventures, even looked forward to them; and to hear him sounding so downbeat was worrisome. Something unusual had happened, and Charlie knew his boyfriend well enough to know when it was something that he wanted help with.

He headed down the steps from his room, pausing just long enough by the front door to call to his mom that he was going out. She was in the back of the house, spending her Saturday morning watching an old movie and organizing her collection of butterfly pins, while Charlie's dad sat back in his favorite recliner with his eyes closed, noise-cancelling headphones on his head, alternating between Mozart, Mehldau, and Credence Clearwater Revival.

"Where will you be if I need you?" his mom called back.

"Just at Kip's house."

He could hear a faint laugh, and could imagine his mom smiling. Like where else would Charlie be going on a day off from school?

"Say hi to Kippy!" she returned.

Charlie grunted, and headed outside. It was a cool October Saturday, just a scant five days now until Halloween. A carpet of red and gold leaves covered the grass, which itself was lightening to a golden brown in preparation for winter hibernation. The trees were starting to look barren and forlorn, and Charlie had always found this slow death of summer a little depressing in appearance.

But he gave a little sigh, and smiled. Winter would be here before he knew it, and snow, and Christmas, and all the wonderful things that holiday had come to mean to him and his friends. Frit and Pip had invited them to spend an elf Christmas with them, quickly saying before the boys could protest that doing that would mean missing the holiday with their own families, that Max had promised to finagle the clocks a little so that the boys could enjoy the day with all their favorite people. Nicholaas had also promised to put in an appearance, an event that was always worth waiting for, making for a great holiday by anyone's standards. Charlie and Kip and their friends, Ricky Travers and Adrian Whitacre, were looking forward to spoofing time a little, and having the best of both Christmas worlds.

So he could deal with a little pause in the world due to fall, when winter promised to liven it all back up again! And, there was still Halloween to enjoy, a holiday that had come to have special meaning for them all. Halloween marked the entry of Adrian into their lives, and especially Ricky's life - the final piece of a puzzle that had cemented the four of them into a wonderful and lasting friendship.

But first...Kippy needed him.

Normally, Charlie would have taken the sidewalk and walked around the block and over to Kippy's street. But the strangeness in his boyfriend's voice gave a sense of urgency to Charlie's feet, and instead he circled the house and hopped over the chain-link fence dividing his parent's property from that of Mrs. Marmadopolous behind them, and jogged through her side yard to the next street over. From there it was a quick walk to Kip's house another block up.

He arrived at the front door and reached for the knob...and paused. Kippy had said to come right in and come up to his room, but Charlie had never entered without knocking in all the years he'd known Kippy. So he knocked, and when there was no answer, he knocked again.

Above him, a window went up, and he stepped back and looked upward just as his boyfriend stuck his head out. "Charlie! I said to come on in!"

Charlie nodded, feeling a little guilty. "I know." He lowered his voice. "But suppose your mom was walking around in her underwear, or something?"

"My parents went to the mall to look at bath towels and junk. My cousin Katie is getting married, and they have to think of some gifts for her." A brief flash of impatience crossed Kippy's features. "It's unlocked. Come on up!"

The window slammed down again, and Charlie sighed. Kippy sounded more than a little upset. But he opened the door and went in, and then up to the second floor to Kippy's room.

His boyfriend met him at the bedroom door, and threw his arms around him. "I'm so glad you're here!"

Charlie held Kippy close, returning the anxious grip he felt from him with one he hoped was reassuring. Kippy sighed and turned his head, and Charlie gently kissed his cheek. "I'm here now," he whispered. "What's all the fuss?"

Kippy pulled back and stared at him. "There's a dead monster in my closet."

Charlie grinned at that, until he saw that Kippy wasn't smiling. "Seriously?" he couldn't help asking, anyway.

"Yes. It's fat and gloppy looking, and it smells like it's been dead for a month. But it wasn't there last night, so it must have just died today."

"In your closet?"

Kippy sighed. "I don't know if it died there, but that's where it ended up." He gave a little pout. "What am I going to do with it, Charlie? I can't just leave it there. It stinks!"

Charlie gave a little shake of his head. "This is what's gotten you so upset?"

Kippy made a slightly rude noise. "Wait until you smell it, before you say anything else."

Charlie squared his shoulders, and stepped around his boyfriend. "Let me look."

"Hold your nose when you open the door, okay?"

Charlie crossed the room and placed his hand on the doorknob of the closet door...and then he paused as a foul stench hit his nostrils.!

There were hints of rotten cabbage there, and traces of skunk, and broccoli farts; but mostly it smelled like the back of a garbage truck on a really hot summer day. It wasn't the sort of odor that made you want to puke, but it would do quite nicely until the real thing came along. Charlie pinched his nose closed with the thumb and forefinger of his free hand, and opened the closet door...

And immediately stepped back.

What was inside was indeed fat and gloppy looking. Charlie's first impression was of a seriously obese alligator, one with greenish leather for a hide, complete with the intricate ribbed patterning that made people want the skin for wallets and belts. But this hide was blemished everywhere by knobby projections that looked like very large warts, much reducing the appeal of it for anything useful. The alligator was standing upright, it's immense potbelly serving as a support for the large snout that rested atop it, eyes closed. The beast's arm dangled lifelessly along the bulging belly at its side, while its feet barely protruded from beneath. But the ends of the long fingers and toes were tipped with prominent black claws that looked quite capable of shredding plywood, or maybe a couple of not-too-careful teenaged boys, and Charlie felt an immediate sense of caution take hold. The thing's tail was thrown over the farthest shoulder from behind, and rested against the hangers holding Kippy's winter coats and dress suits. The thing looked - and smelled - very, very dead.

"Yuck," Charlie said, shaking his head. "How on earth did this thing get --"

The nearest eyelid suddenly flicked open, and a brown eye with vertical slits turned to appraise him.

Charlie took in a shocked breath, and immediately jumped back and slammed the door, and turned quickly to put his back to it. "I thought you said it was dead!"

Kippy's eyes grew large. "I thought it was! It sure smells like it is!" He crept closer. "What happened?"

"One of the eyes opened, and looked right at me."

Kippy's jaw dropped; and then he was beside Charlie, his back also to the closet door. "What do we do now?" he whispered.

Charlie opened his mouth to reply, but a sudden sound came to them then: tink-tink-tink.

The two boys stared at each other, and then both turned their heads towards the source of the sound.

"That came from my nightstand," Kippy whispered.

The sound repeated. Tink-tink-tink.

"Definitely," Charlie also whispered. "What's in the drawer?"

Kippy squeezed his eyes closed. " phone...a box of throat lozenges...a bowl of loose old ring from the market on Engris..."

"Wait," Charlie interrupted. "The ring. Didn't you tell me it had been acting spooky or something?"

"I said that something lived in it, and that it sang sometimes. What's that got to do with a monster in my closet?"

Charlie pushed off the door, went to the nightstand, and opened the drawer. Something leaped up from it and sailed over his shoulder. He flinched and turned in the same moment, just in time to see a startled Kippy extend a hand and catch the ring.

"Great reflexes," Charlie said automatically, returning to stand by his boyfriend. And then both of them looked down at the ring clenched in Kippy's fingers.

It hummed faintly, and Charlie blinked in astonishment, sure that he saw the ring briefly glow. "It is doing something," he whispered.

"It's singing," Kippy said quietly, sounding enchanted despite his upset. "I usually just hear it in the drawer, but when I open it, the sound is gone. This is the first time it's actually sang when I was looking at it."

Charlie examined the ring. It was old - ancient would be the better word - and pitted and scarred, and the milky gemstone in the setting looked dull and lifeless. Yet somehow, the ring still held some odd trace of beauty, as if it had refused to let time steal away all of its charm. The band was far too large to be worn on a human finger, and the ring's origins had been unknown even to the alien seller at the market on Engris, who had only hinted that it had come from a grave. But Pacha'ka had said, somewhat vaguely, that Kippy would like the ring, and that it held a surprise of some sort, and would be worth owning. Kippy had not needed even that small prod to fall in love with the odd piece of jewelry, seeing within it something that touched favorably upon some part of his very large heart.

He sighed now, and smiled at Charlie. "It's such a sweet sound, isn't it?"

Charlie didn't know about that. The hum varied in pitch, and did indeed sound like someone singing a very different sort of tune, albeit not in any voice that he had ever heard before. There was an otherworldly quality to the sound that could not be missed, forming in Charlie's mind the briefest glimpses of landscapes and places that had no counterparts on the planet Earth.

"It's communicating...or something," he decided. "I'm getting...they're not quite pictures...I'm getting almost pictures, of weird places inside my head."

"You, too?" Kippy asked. "I've seen them off and on for a while. And in my dreams at night, sometimes, as well."

Charlie frowned. "Kip, I wish you'd told me more about this before now. It seems like this ring has been trying to get your attention for some time."

"It's been getting my attention, Charlie. I just haven't known what to make of it." Kippy leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. "I don't know what it wants from me."

Suddenly, the door behind them vibrated to three slow raps delivered from within. Both boys took an automatic step away from it, and Kippy grabbed Charlie's arm. "It is alive!"

Charlie looked down at the ring in his boyfriend's fingers, and then back at the closet door. It couldn't be a coincidence that the ring had developed new life with the appearance of this creature in Kip's closet. The two incidents had to be related.

Charlie took Kip's hand with the ring in it, and moved it closer to the door. Kippy gasped, tightening his grip on the ancient piece. "It's pulling towards the door!"

Charlie took a deep breath to calm himself, and leaned closer to Kippy and spoke in a whisper, "I'm gonna open the door, okay?"

Kippy eyed him, but seemed also to have made the connection between the ring and the monster in his closet. "I think we have to," he agreed.

They stepped back, and Charlie reached for the knob. Just as he grabbed it the door reverberated again to three sharp knocks from within. Charlie clenched his teeth, and slowly inched the door open.

The beast inside had not changed position. But the eye was still open, and now it focused upon them. The nearest arm, just dropping back after delivering the raps to the door, slowly rose again, and the hand extended towards them, the clawed fingers spreading. Charlie examined those fingers, noted their thickness, and in an instant knew what needed to be done.

"Put the ring on its finger," he instructed Kippy.

Kippy nodded, also seeing the obvious request, and raised his own hand and carefully slipped the ring onto the ring finger of the leathery hand. It fit perfectly.

The beast inside the closet gave forth a contented sigh, and the eye closed again. The body of the creature began to glow a soft yellow, and the humming from the ring increased in volume. Charlie licked his lips, which had become unusually dry somehow, and took Kippy by the arm and stepped back. He closed the door again, and then pulled Kippy over by the bed.

"What are we doing?" Kippy whispered.

Charlie sat on the edge of the bed, and pulled his boyfriend down beside him. "Where is your little communicator? The one that can call Pacha and Mike?"

Kippy frowned, then stood and walked over to his dresser. Atop it stood a ceramic statue about ten inches high, that they had found at the thrift shop, of the alien from the movie E.T. Kippy had smiled when he saw it, saying it needed a home, and the little creature had stood in the same spot on his dresser for the better part of a year now. It had a little light inside, and when you turned it on the alien's eyes glowed. It made a decent nightlight, for the occasional times they spent the night at Kip's instead of Charlie's house, when a soft glow was just enough light to accompany a fond round of lovemaking.

Kippy picked up the statue and turned it so the underside of the base showed. There was a wide hole there, giving access to the hollow interior. Kippy thrust two fingers inside and pulled out a white blob, something wrapped carefully in a handkerchief. He set the statue down again and came back to the bed, unwinding the handkerchief as he walked. Inside it was the communicator, which he handed to Charlie as he sat on the bed beside him again.

"I think that's a good idea," Kippy whispered. "I'm sure Pacha will know more about this than we do."

"I'll call them," Charlie agreed. "In the meantime, get your cell out of the nightstand and call Rick and Adrian, and tell them what's going on. They'll want to be here, I think."

Kippy nodded, quietly retrieved his cell phone from the drawer, and moved across the room towards the bathroom door so that each of them could make their calls.

Charlie blew out a breath to steady his nerves, and glanced at the closet door one more time. Here we go again!

And then he proceeded to enter the code into the communicator that would connect him to Illia, the mind that ran Pacha's starship.

"What do you think it's doing?" Adrian asked, watching the closet apprehensively. They were seated four-abreast on the edge of the bed now, shoulder to shoulder, facing the closet. Not a peep had issued from behind the closed door, beyond the soft humming sound. They could see brief glows of light beneath the door now and then, reflected on the hardwood flooring, but no other indication that anything was going on within.

"No clue," Charlie admitted.

"It has the ring, and the ring fit," Kippy reminded. "So I'm going to assume for the moment that the ring belongs to this guy, or to someone like him."

"If it is a him," Ricky said. "We don't even know that much yet."

All four of them nodded, and continued to watch the closet door.

It had been two hours since the calls had been placed. Ricky and Adrian had set a record getting to Kippy's house, bursting inside and pounding up the staircase in unison, already informed that Kippy's parents were out and that it was safe to do so. The two boys had suddenly slowed just at the threshold of Kippy's bedroom door and peered apprehensively inwards, and been obviously relieved at finding Charlie and Kippy sitting together on the bed. They had then joined them, tiptoeing across the floor to seat themselves beside their friends.

Ricky was wearing his vibratory blade, acquired at the pirate market on Engris. He just grinned when Charlie eyed it, and patted the haft of the weapon fondly. "We didn't know what we might be getting into, you know?"

"I just hope Pacha will be able to figure this out," Charlie stated, his thoughts mostly elsewhere. "I certainly hope weapons will not be needed."

Waiting for the others to arrive was getting a little agonizing by now.

Pacha and Mike - and Bobby and Kontus, too - were just back from exploring the Tower of Arimides on Plastark, a dead world circling an ancient sun in the Crab Nebula, and had been staying at Engris while they sorted through their loot. Or, rather, their archaeological discoveries. Pacha's abilities had allowed them to discover several items that had eluded even the advanced scanners employed by the treasure-seekers of many an alien race over millennia of time, and they had been trying to figure out what to do with them when Charlie's call had come in.

The voyage to Earth would be virtually instantaneous to Charlie and the others, accomplished as it was within the timelessness of the Cooee. But Pacha did say they'd need a little time to get in-system and to Earth once they dropped back into normal space. Arriving in a star system was a more cautious endeavor than leaving one. The practice was to arrive well above or below the plane of the ecliptic, and then to head to the destination planet under normal propulsion, which was done in real-time. The technology used to enter and exit the Cooee was somewhat sensitive to gravitational wells, and adapted much easier to leaving the vicinity of one, than it did to arriving into one. If you were in a hurry, you could press your luck a little and arrive close to the destination world, and more than likely you'd be just fine. The odds were in your favor, really.

But there were more than a few tales of mishaps with vessels arriving too close to gravity wells, and Pacha would not see the boy's situation as an emergency because Charlie had not presented it as one. So the little alien would adhere to normal protocols, and arrive with some minor real-time travel left to complete. Much better to be safe than sorry.

Charlie had figured a couple of hours, and that time had now passed. Kippy's parents had returned home, and his mom had called up to him to ask him if he wanted some lunch. Kippy had responded that 'the gang' was there, and that they planned to go out and eat later. Kippy's parents had come to accept the slightly odd group activities of their son and his friends, and left them alone after that.

Adrian turned to Kippy. "You say it looks like a big, fat alligator?"

"A green one?" Ricky added.

"Uh huh. When I first opened the closet door, I nearly lost it."

Ricky seemed unable not to smile. "I can imagine. And you thought Charlie had something to do with it?"

Kippy sighed, and turned a cool eye on the other boy. "I thought it was a joke at first. I thought maybe Charlie had gotten Frit and Pip to whip up a monster in my closet as a Halloween prank. It's just the sort of thing that Frit and Pip would love."

"But not Charlie," Adrian countered, shaking his head. "That's not his style, Kip. He loves you too much to scare you like that."

Kippy looked distressed, and nodded. "I know. I'm sorry, Charlie."

Charlie tightened his grip on Kippy's shoulder and turned his head and kissed him. "Stop worrying about it. It's not important, okay?"

Kippy smiled, and leaned his head on Charlie's shoulder. "Love you."

"Me, too, Kip." Charlie grinned then. "Besides, if I had thought up a gag like this, I'd have made it a sexy elf guy wearing a speedo, instead of a monster. It would have been a lot more fun seeing your reaction to finding him in your closet!"

Kippy gave Charlie a gentle smack on the arm, but there wasn't a drop of anger in it. "I'm sure if I'd found him in my closet, I wouldn't have wasted time calling you to ask about it!"

Ricky and Adrian both laughed, and Charlie grinned and rolled his eyes.

Just then they felt a movement of the air in the room, heard a soft pop, and Pacha'ka and Mike appeared near them. Mike carried Pacha'ka in the crook of his arm, and the little alien shapechanger was wearing his favorite form, that of a koala from Mike's native land of Australia. Mike stood still a moment, getting his bearings, and the boys jumped to their feet and quickly surrounded the two. Hugs were exchanged, along with brief, whispered greetings, and then Mike patted Charlie on the shoulder. "Why are we whispering? I thought the monster already knew you were out here."

"It does," Kippy said quickly. "We were just trying not to attract too much attention."

"If it knows you're out here, what difference does it make?"

Kippy made a face. "You haven't seen this thing yet. Or smelled it!"

Charlie reached out and gave Pacha's arm a fond pat. "Getting pretty good with the ka teleportation thing now, aren't you? How far did you guys transport?"

"From orbit," Mike said, the pride evident in his voice, as if he had accomplished the deed himself. "Pach is gettin' good, huh?"

"I have learned well from Max," Pacha said then. "The trading of knowledge and practices has been of benefit to us both."

"Came in handy on Plastark," Mike immediately followed with. "We were in this frozen cavern underneath the tower when the entrance caved in. Pach was able to get us all back to the ship in one piece."

"Where's Bobby?" Adrian asked. "Why didn't you bring him along?"

"And Kontus?" Ricky added. "He's still with you, isn't he?"

"We left them with Illia, aboard ship," Mike replied, waving a hand around the room. "Didn't know what we were getting ourselves into here--"

"Can we?" Kippy interjected, a little more loudly than he'd intended. He immediately looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, but I want this stinky thing out of my closet. I'm sure I'm going to have to wash everything that was in there in order to get the funk out of it."

Pacha looked over at the closed door and closed his eyes. Everyone immediately went silent, waiting.

The koala opened his eyes, and looked at Kippy. "The ring?"

Kippy indicated the closet with a wave of his hand. "It's in there, with...whatever it is."

"That was the right thing to do."

"You know what's going on?" Charlie asked then. "The ring seemed to want to go to the...the creature, so that's what we did."

Pacha gave a twitch of his short muzzle, the Kifta equivalent of a frown. "I do not know exactly what has transpired here yet." He looked over at Kippy. "But I sensed when you found the ring at the marketplace on Engris that you would receive enjoyment from possessing it, and that the ring, too, had in some way chosen you to keep it near. The why of this is still a mystery, however."

"It would sing," Kippy said, "and make those little sparky flashes when I'd touch it. Sometimes it would just seem to glow on its own. I felt like it was trying to talk to me almost, but...but I couldn't understand what it was trying to say." He frowned. "And I sometimes thought I saw, well, places in my dreams, that somehow came from the ring."

"No doubt. The ring is, I believe, a link of some sort. No...that is perhaps not the right word. It bears a reflection within, perhaps, of another mind, or another soul, or another essence of life. A life from somewhere, and some when, perhaps even a place other than our own reality, our own here and now."

Kippy emitted a small gasp. "Then the ring is alive!"

"Not as we know life," Pacha countered. "This is a ka thing, one I cannot easily explain with words." The little alien's muzzle twitched again. "At some time, long ago, in some other region of this or another universe, a being lived out its life. It eventually passed on, but some part remained behind within the ring, which was probably designed expressly to hold this small reflection of what once was. And now, here, in this reality, this reflection has seen fit to return for some reason."

Charlie stared at the koala. "You got all this, just from seeing the ring at the market on Engris?"

"No. Much of it came to me later, and the final answer, just now."

Charlie leaned forward. "You said when Kippy first discovered the ring that it was ancient - as ancient as Engris, itself. Like, a half-million years?"

"Yes. The sense of time spans is clear."

Kippy also leaned closer. "Do you think the people that built Engris made this ring?"

Pacha considered that, and then gave a little cant to his head that signified disagreement. "As I said once before, I do not think so. Engris has a very clear signature - a mental scent, if you like - which is unique to that body and all the things upon its surface. The ring feels of the same period, but not of the same origin."

Ricky nodded. "If one people back then knew how to contact the dead, you'd think others might, too."

Kippy made a little huffing sound. "Okay. So the ring is old, and it maybe had the spirit of some alien inside. But why has it chosen my closet to appear in? And why does it smell dead, if it isn't?"

Pacha tilted his head back and looked up at Mike. "Can we move to the door?"

Mike nodded, and carried the little alien over to the closet.

"Uh...Pach?" Mike said then.


Mike glanced back at Charlie and the others before smiling at the Kift. "Now that we know it's pretty safe here, can we bring Bobby and Kontus down? They'll want to be in on this." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Might be good to have Kontus here, too, just for the back up." He flashed the smile again. "The guy's strong as an ox."

Pacha looked over at Kippy, who nodded a little impatiently. "If it will speed things up, by all means, bring them."

The koala closed his eyes, and a moment later the air in the room moved, there was a small pop, and Bobby Felsen and Kontus 3Rowf appeared. The boy looked startled at the sudden movement across space, but the bear-like face of Kontus immediately looked pleased, and then they both grinned at seeing where they were. Mike immediately held a finger to his lips to warn them to keep silent, and the two newcomers nodded, and moved to stand with Charlie and the others. Kontus grinned at them, and Bobby stuck out a hand and patted Charlie warmly on the arm.

Mike rolled his eyes a bit at all the byplay, and looked back at Pacha. "Ready."

"Then open the door, slowly."

Mike took the knob in hand and turned it, and stepped back, drawing the door to him. Charlie stood on tiptoe to see past Mike, and then joined in with the others in gasping in surprise.

The fat monster was gone. In its place stood a tall, bipedal figure, still wrapped in the greenish, leathery skin; but that was the only real resemblance to the creature had been in the closet before. The skin was unblemished now, the warts gone, and seemed finer and perhaps thinner than it had before. The long snout had rounded and shortened considerably, and bore two tiny, slitted nostrils at the tip, beneath two large eyes, now closed. The torso had lost its enormous bulk and become straight and thin. The arms had lengthened, and the black claws on the fingers had shrunk to dark brown fingernails, rounded like old pennies. The legs were straighter and longer, the claws on the feet had also disappeared, and the feet themselves were shorter now. And lastly, the long tail the creature had sported was no longer visible at all, suggesting that it had vanished, or at least shortened to something that might no longer be called a tail.

They stared at the creature in silence. The ring was still there, still seeming to fit the finger of the creature, even though the hand had shortened, and the fingers along with them. The ring glowed softly, and Charlie was sure he could still hear a softer echo of the singing it had been doing earlier.

The creature's face twitched, and the eyes opened, to watch them as intently as they were watching it in return. The thin mouth, now just a lipless line underneath the rounded snout, gently stretched into a smile, and the creature gave out a large, very plain, very human sigh.

"At last!" The voice was raspy, with perhaps a bit of sawdust in it, but perfectly understandable to human ears.

"Greetings," Pacha said immediately. "I am Pacha, a Ka of the Kifta."

The creature nodded. "And Kippy, and Charlie, and Ricky, and Adrian. And Mike, I think it is. The others I do not know."

"That's right," Mike said, nodding his head. "And that's Bobby, and the big guy is Kontus."

"Greetings to all of you. I am Ragal, once in the service of the Orban of Emiranda, but now cast loose upon the winds of time."

"You came from my ring?" Kippy blurted then, shaking his head. "You were in there all the time, singing to me?"

The creature's gaze moved to settle on Charlie's boyfriend. "The ring is many things. For me it was a conduit, a path to this existence. I needed the right soul at the other end, a soul in harmony with my own, to complete the journey back here. Thank you, Kippy, for allowing me to come home."

Charlie held up a hand for attention. "Uh...hi. You do know, right, that time has passed since you were here before?"

"I'm not sure I've been here before. Not exactly here, I mean. This reality is similar to mine, but may not be the one that birthed my people; or, at least, not the people I knew. My race did exist here, in this galaxy, in this reality, but its history may have been slightly different than the one I knew. Or, my memories of that history are now suspect, altered by my travels through multiple existences. I cannot be sure which reality is the true one reality any longer."

"Well, that sucks," Adrian said, under his breath.

"Oh." Charlie digested what he could of that, and nodded. "Still, it's been a while since the people like yours were here. Time has passed, right?"

"Yes. A great deal of it, too. Gone are my people from this galaxy, and gone, too, are the great star realms that once spanned it in my time. The children of our children's children now hold these stars in their hands, and it is rightly so. I am not here to contest that fact."

Charlie gave a mental sigh of relief. The last aliens they'd met from the past had been angry that their Beltracian race had lost its grip on empire, and had set about trying to recreate their former glory, at the expense of those peoples populating this area of the galaxy now. It hadn't been much fun dealing with them, and Charlie was still smarting somewhat at his part in the resolution of that drama.

Kippy frowned. "Your appearance has changed a lot since I first saw you." He gave a little sniff of the air then, and a smile spread across his face. "The somewhat, um, unpleasant smell is gone, too."

The tall alien gave out a rasping laugh. "The swamps of my genetic youth, as it were. I had to start from scratch with a body, and evolve it quickly through the many forms my people have taken before we arrived at the form you see before you. Some of the earlier forms were not exactly pleasing to the eye, or the nose, I'm afraid."

Kippy nodded. "It's all good now."

"May I come out?" Ragal asked, now looking about the room. "I would enjoy seeing more clearly where I have come to be."

Charlie looked at Kippy, who shrugged and nodded. "Sure. Feel free."

The creature stepped from the closet, and turned slowly to survey the room. "It looks comfortable."

Charlie couldn't help grinning at that, his eyes briefly seeking Kippy's. "Oh, it is that."

Kippy smiled, his eyes twinkling at Charlie. "Uh huh."

Charlie could not help looking over the alien's body as it turned this way and that, examining the things on Kippy's desk and walls. The tail that Charlie had seen earlier was gone, a mere stub now that more resembled the rear end of a duck than anything else. Ragal's body was quite featureless, actually, with none of the perhaps embarrassing features that a human being would be showing off in a similarly naked pose.

Pacha had been listening to the exchange patiently. "Your use of English is excellent. How did you come to learn the language so quickly?"

"It has not been quickly, for me."

"Ah." Pacha digested that fact seemingly without surprise, and then gave a little nod of his head. "I would presume there is a reason for your visit, Ragal?"

"Yes. A quite urgent one, actually. You see..." The alien leaned forward, his eyes upon them "...I left the water running in the bathtub."

Charlie joined the others in staring at the creature, whose eyes moved among them curiously. "It was a joke," Ragal finally said. "Did I do it wrong?"

Charlie shook his head. "I guess not. It just wasn't what we expected."

The alien smiled again. "I have been here among you for some time now. Ever since you acquired the ring, Kippy. My kind have a facility for languages, for absorbing cultures, which had us in the role of peacemakers and ambassadors of understanding among the many star traveling species of long ago. I have been listening to all of you speak together since the ring was purchased at Engris. I have heard the music Kippy has played, heard the movies he has watched, heard everything that has transpired in this room."

Kippy grew wide-eyed, and turned to look at Charlie. "Everything?"

Charlie felt his own cheeks warm, recalling some of the things he and Kippy had discussed during their times together in Kippy's bedroom. And some of the things they had done together!

"Everything. In this way I have learned the language of your kind, and about the ways and the humor of your kind, and even about the affections of your kind."

"Oh, great," Kippy mumbled, rosy-cheeked.

But Charlie had to laugh. "I hope it was at least interesting for you."

"It was. Yours is a kind people, Charlie. You have nothing to feel embarrassed about."

"Some of us aren't so nice," Charlie countered. "There are some bad eggs everywhere, I guess." But then he put out a hand, and pulled Kippy closer, and draped an arm around his shoulders. "But some of us are truly special."

Kippy sighed, and smiled. "Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things."

"Um...are you a he or a she?" Ricky asked Ragal, giving an unsure twitch of his shoulder. "Unless it's not polite for me to ask, that is."

Ragal emitted another gritty laugh. "My kind does not have two unique sexes, as yours does. In our society, one played whichever role suited best for the relationship. Each of us can reproduce, but it is a different process than you understand." The gritty sound repeated. "Let's just say I feel male at the moment, and in the company of so many males, it somehow seems proper. But moods can change."

Charlie emitted a startled laugh of his own. "That sounds complicated."

"It's not, not really. Should I feel more in touch with my feminine side at some point, I will be sure to say so."

Pacha canted his head at the alien. "There is a real reason for your visit? Can we assist you somehow?"

"I don't know," Ragal said, his eyes turning to meet the Kift's. "You are a power user, this much I can feel. And I know there are power users among Kippy's brother race, the elves, and even -" the broad smile returned - "and even hints of the gift among Kippy and Charlie and the others."

Kippy's eyes widened, but Adrian grinned and patted his shoulder. "Skwish, Kip."

Kippy nodded. "Yeah. But I'm hardly ready to go teleporting around the dimensions just yet."

"In time, perhaps," Ragal said, his eyes twinkling. He turned back to Pacha'ka. "The planet of my kind - those like me that lived in this reality, anyway - lies a great distance from here. Truly, the ring that bore my savva has traveled far from home. In it's travels it has had many owners, some of whom cherished it, some of whom held it for simple curiosity's sake, and others who even feared it as the repository of something devilish, and yet still could not part with it. Once the technology of savva preservation passed from known space, the ring's purpose also became obscured. And so it has taken a very long time to finally arrive in a place where it could again be of use."

Pacha waved a small hand at Kippy. "I sensed at the market on Engris that the ring chose this one to accompany. Kippy also seemed enchanted with the ring, despite its less than reputable appearance. Is this what you refer to? The seller of the ring said it had sparked to the touch of others besides Kippy, yet none had been attracted enough to make the purchase."

"The ring has a life of its own," Ragal responded, "beyond my own savva, which it contained. It has the power to see into the hearts and minds of those who would possess it, and to choose, if possible, its caretaker. Many have owned the ring to which the ring had no bond, but that is the way of any antiquity in the world of collectors. The ring makes it known by sparkling when it detects a soul it would accompany willingly, but that is no insurance that that is where the ring will go. The other soul must feel the link, and make the step needed to bring the two of them together. Kippy did that, on Engris." The alien smiled. "The ring is happy now, and here it will stay."

Ragal raised the hand bearing the ring, and pulled it off his finger. He extended the ring to Kippy, who gave a little yip of delight and reached out to receive it.

Charlie smiled. "You still want it, after all that?"

"Don't be silly, Charlie. I especially want it, after all that."

Charlie grinned, and shook his head as Kippy smiled down at the ring in his hand a moment, then looked up at Ragal. "Will it still sing to me?"

"I think it will, Kippy. Perhaps, for now, you can return it to the place it sleeps beside you in your dreams."

Kippy nodded, and went to the nightstand, and placed the ring in the drawer. He came back to stand beside Charlie, and smiled at Ragal. "I would have let it go with you, if that's what it wanted. But I would have missed it."

"It has served its purpose, at least for me," Ragal said. "Enjoy it, please."

Mike gave out a small sigh. "We're goin' the long way around town on this, aren't we?"

Pacha gave out one of his tchick-tchick-tchick laughs. "The impatience of youth."

Ragal nodded. "I apologize. The question was, can you be of help to me in my mission here? Again, my answer is, I don't know."

"Perhaps we can know why you have chosen this moment to appear among us, then?" Pacha asked.

Charlie was surprised at how universal many facial expressions seemed to be. A smile, a frown, anger, affection - all seemed to be equally expressed within the eyes and features of many of the races he had met. Ragal seemed to be no exception. What Charlie saw now was uncertainty, as the alien looked at the faces about him.

"There is something wrong here, in your reality. Something I can affect for the better. But...I have no idea what it is."

Mike looked astonished. "You don't know why you're here?"

"Not just yet, no. I have clues, which can start me along the path to discovery, and which I hope will lead me to the answer. But at this point, I really don't know why the ring chose this moment to bring me back."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged looks of wonder. "You mean the ring brought you here?" Kippy asked. "You didn't come on your own?"

Ragal gave a slow shake of his head. "This is the proper gesture to signify disagreement, correct?" At Kippy's surprised look, the alien smiled. "Kept in the drawer as I was, I could hear much more than I could see. I therefore had to infer some of the mannerisms from the threads of the conversations. Now, to answer your question, yes, the ring opened the path to bring me to this here and now."

"So the ring knows why you're here?" Ricky asked. "Can we ask it somehow?"

"The ring may know, or it may only sense the need. In any case, the ring is not alive in the same way that you and I are. It does not communicate directly - does not speak. It has shown me images of places, but I can only guess where they might be located."

Kippy frowned. "The way the ring would sing, it always seemed to me to be like a voice that I just missed being able to understand."

"Exactly. Even with my facility for languages, I was able to do no better. I even inquired with some of the other savva - the few I could communicate with - but they did not understand, either."

Charlie was astounded. "Wait...there are, essences...within the ring, just like you were there?"

Ragal again shook his head. "Not actually within the ring. My savva has wandered to many places over the long years, but always have I felt the ring close by. Others share that channel of communication. Others share the ability to re-emerge as I did, should there be a need to do so."

Kippy turned to stare at his nightstand. "You mean this could happen again? Someone else could appear inside my closet?"

"Only time will tell, Kip. The ring wishes to stay with you. If another need arises, you may again have a visitor."

Kippy blew out a small breath of air, making his lips vibrate.

"Is this unacceptable to you?" Ragal asked.

Kippy looked at Charlie, as if for help...but then suddenly smiled. "No. I guess it's fine. I was just thinking that this goes right along with everything else that's been happening to us. And all those things have worked out."

"More or less," Charlie added, rolling his eyes.

"Yes. More or less. But mostly to the good." Kippy firmed his lips, and nodded. "I feel like the ring belongs here. So here it will stay."

"There must be something we can do," Pacha said then. "I feel we are to be part of this, somehow."

"You have a ship," Ragal said. "I will need to get to a place called Erenar. You know of it?"

The little koala narrowed his eyes, and then canted his head slightly. "It is familiar, but I cannot place it. We will need to consult with Illia, my ship's mind."

"Isn't that --" Mike began, but then shook his own head. "No. I was thinking of a place I saw in one of the archaeological histories that Illia provided for me, where the Athonara stood against the Karchee incursion. I was thinking that planet they were based on was called Erenar."

Pacha gave out one of his laughs, and Charlie had to smile at the fondness for Mike he sensed in it. "I actually believe you are correct, Mike."

Mike brightened. "Really? Well, I guess it was bound to happen, sooner or later."

"Why this Erenar place?" Charlie asked Ragal. "Is it one of the clues you mentioned you had?"

Ragal offered a quick smile. "I was shown a multitude of images by the ring, none of which I recognized. But one of the other savva linked to the ring did recognize one of the landscapes, and supplied the name of Erenar. As the only image offered by the ring I can place a name to, I would start there with my seeking."

Pacha patted Mike's arm. "Quite the student of lost empires you are becoming, my boy."

Mike tried hard not to look overly pleased by the praise. "Well, there's a ton of that stuff in the history archives, and it is an interest we share. I'm glad I could help."

"Are we all going along?" Kippy asked.

Ragal gave a nod of his head. "If all are agreeable to the idea. I sense that it is the combined effort of this group of individuals that will ensure the success of this quest."

Adrian laughed. "Where have we heard that before?"

Indeed. Charlie remembered that their friends, Will and Billy, had said in the spirit dome on Engris, that there was a synergy to their group that placed their actions more often on the side of success, and that the universe had taken notice of the fact. Charlie had initially been proud to learn that, but had since decided that it would be incautious to decide that everything they did from here on out would be met with success. And even success might have a price, and there were some things that Charlie was not willing to sacrifice in order to win each and every time.

Ricky looked to Charlie and shook his head. "How are we gonna do this? We won't have Max here to jiggle the clocks for us this time. We can't just go off for a week or something while school's in. My parents won't go for it, I'm tellin' you now."

The last news they had heard from Frit and Pip was that Max and a small group of other older elves were still involved with disposing of the Beltracian arsenal planet. The planet's orbit had been altered, causing it to grow nearer to the red star around which it circled, and now Max and the others were there again to ensure that the world took the final plunge into the solar furnace. The ancient weapons of the Beltracians were too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the hands of others. Destroying the sterile, uninhabited world seemed like the best course of action.

Max had said that it would be a difficult operation. The mind that ran the arsenal planet would need to be kept confused, in order that it not simply send the thousands upon thousands of battle-worthy ships stored there racing in every direction away from the doomed planet. The planetary mind was quantum based, and only by a concentrated effort of the elves to monitor the actions of the qubits in each entangled pair by direct observation could they hope to keep the mind confused enough that it would be unable to save the battle fleet. Or itself.

"Maybe if we just called Max?" Adrian suggested. "Maybe he can jiggle time, and still be here to help us out?"

Charlie considered that, and shook his head. "I'd rather not. What they're doing is important, and we can't always have Max dropping things to come and help us."

Ricky smiled at Pacha. "I don't suppose you've learned to stop time yet?"

The koala looked faintly amused by the suggestion. "I seem not to have the knack for that particular ka. I can learn many things from Max, but altering the flow of time seems not to be among them. To each, his own gifts."

"How about Frit and Pip?" Kippy suggested. "I know they can't manipulate time like Max can, but maybe they know someone that can help us there."

Charlie nodded. "There's an idea. I'd feel better asking them, than I would butting into what Max and the others are doing just now."

Kontus, who had been silently listening to events next to Bobby, suddenly spoke up in his growling, rough-hewn tongue. Only then did Charlie remember that he and the others were not wearing translators.

Charlie grinned at Mike. "What did he say?"

Mike returned the grin. "He said he'd be pleased to accompany us on another wonderful adventure."

Kontus nodded, the sides of his muzzle lifting in an ursine smile.

Mike patted his belt, and found the little pouch stored there. He opened it, and dug out four of the tiny blobs that were Kifta language translators, and handed them out to each of the other boys. Bobby and Mike already wore them, and some sort of accommodation had evidently been made for Kontus, as he seemed able to follow everything that had happened thus far.

Charlie pushed the blob into his right ear, where it conformed itself to fit, and promptly became almost invisible. Kippy and the others mimicked him, and then Charlie stepped forward and extended his hand to Kontus, who carefully took it into his much larger hand, and gently shook it.

"Great to see you again," Charlie said, smiling. "I like knowing that you've been enjoying your adventures with these guys, and not been cooped up in that floating tower of yours back home, watching other ships come and go, but never getting anywhere yourself."

Kontus laughed at that, a deep and pleasant sound that made Kippy cringe and look anxiously at the closed bedroom door. "Shh! My parents are downstairs."

The big alien blinked, but immediately lowered his voice to a Trichani whisper. "Your family? They do not know we are here?"

"Are you kidding?" Kippy asked, but not without a smile. "My dad would freak if he knew I had aliens in my bedroom."

"I'm not sure your mom would be too happy, either," Charlie said. Kippy's parents were nice people, but a little high-strung. It had taken them much longer to accept their son's gayness than had Charlie's parents with him; but now that they had, they supported Kippy and his friends one-hundred percent. But knowing that Kippy was careening about the universe in strange star ships and having alien visitors in his bedroom was still well beyond their current level of experience, and Charlie didn't think it would be a good time to jolt their world with the extreme crowd they had assembled here just now.

"No." Kippy frowned, and then shuddered gently. "Let's not go there, okay? Just, everyone try to be a little quiet."

Bobby smiled at him. "Some things never change, huh? Parents are parents, in any time."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged nods at that. Bobby had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1957, and had, through the oddities of time as it played out within some parts of the Cooee, spent several weeks there, only to reemerge into the normal universe sixty-two years later, yet not even a whole month older himself. It had jolted his world considerably, costing him what remnants of family he still had had, and with no ties to the current time frame, he had gratefully and happily chosen to stick with Mike and Pacha in their exploratory adventures around space.

Kippy had been certain that Bobby and Mike felt an attraction to each other, and it did seem now that the two were extremely at ease together. Charlie could not miss the looks the two passed back and forth, the shared feelings, nor the smiles that went with them. These were much like the eye-talk that he and Kippy exchanged at times, a method of communication that bordered on the near-telepathic at this point in their relationship. Most of it entailed expressions of fond things, too personal to say in mixed company.

Kontus, sucked into the last adventure with Charlie and the others, had thrown caution to the wind, and abandoned his staid existence as a port authority monitor on the Trichani discworld of Roorapynta, to join in with Pacha, Mike, and Bobby in their explorations. The big, bear-like alien had long wished to chase down the obscure trails of lost star civilizations, and now he had found himself part of a crew that did just that on a daily basis. That Kontus was also happy with his new life seemed easy enough to see.

Pacha patted Mike's arm. "Perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to go back to the ship to discuss this."

Mike's eyes grew large as he looked around the room. "Can you move this many people at one time?"

The little koala's eyes also looked about. "I believe so. It's really not a matter of numbers. Max can transport himself and others nearly anywhere he has been before, but I am still working on understanding negative distance. In truth, every point in the universe is right next to every other point. Visualizing that concept as ka movement is a new twist in my thinking. But I sense I am up to this particular task." He waved a small hand at the room in general. "If everyone would come closer, it will be easier for me."

The nine of them moved together, and Pacha closed his eyes. Darkness briefly enveloped them, and then they were standing in the operations center of Pacha's starship. Charlie sighed at that, amazed as always at the idea of teleportation, and that each experience with it was somehow subtly different, depending on who was doing the teleporting. Max had a feel all his own, a powerful, sure, and nearly instantaneous experience that happened in the blink of an eye. Pacha felt less powerful, though just as sure, and the moment of travel was somehow more studied, and just a tad longer than was that of the elf's.

Yet it was all the same in the end. They left where they were, and reappeared where they wanted to go. Charlie trusted the little Kift with their safety just as much as he trusted Max.

"It is always a little startling to have you do that," Illia said then, her voice sounding faintly amused. To the artificial mind there was no more warning of incoming visitors via teleportation than there was to Charlie and the others when someone appeared in their room. Illia would sense the initial displacement of air as room was made for the travelers to appear, but it was extremely short notice, even to a mind that worked at the quantum level.

"Honey, we're home!" Mike called, laughing. Once at odds with the mind that ran Pacha's ship, Mike and Illia had forged an alliance, and then a friendship, in their recent adventures together.

Mike set Pacha down on one of the soft cushions that covered the deck before several glowing columns of light, which served the Kift in the same function that a seat would serve a human pilot. The inside of Pacha's craft looked nothing like Charlie would have once imagined a starship to look, being mostly open space in the center of the egg-shaped vessel, with other rooms spaced about the inside of the outer hull.

There were no consoles full of blinking lights and computer graphics, no strange sounds that might go along with alien machinery performing exotic functions, nothing that would seem to indicate that the large room was anything but a place to relax. Once, Pacha had simply interfaced silently with Illia, told her where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do, and that was that. But apparently, since having more visitors aboard, the little Kift had gotten into the habit of speaking aloud to Illia, so that everyone would know what was going on.

"A star map, please, Illia" he said now, pointing a hand towards the glowing columns. Between them, the air darkened and an image of the galaxy appeared.


"Erenar," the koala said, following that with a quick laugh. "Or, where you suspect, from ancient records, it might be located."

"That region of the galaxy is distant, and not well mapped. I will combine the latest studies with known maps of the region, to produce something that we can use."

Their view suddenly dived down into the galaxy, and one spiral arm grew large. The view closed inward further, dropping into the arm, and a large cluster of stars came into view. Charlie expected the image to continue to focus down until one particular star came into view, but that did not happen.

"Uh oh," Kippy said, shaking his head. "That doesn't look good."

"I have no exact location for Erenar," Illia confirmed. "Only the area of space where the Athonar were known to have battled the Karchee."

"Looks large," Mike said, sounding disappointed.

"The search area is one thousand light years in diameter. The arm of the galaxy is approximately one thousand light years thick here. We therefore have a sphere of space with a volume of approximately 523,598,776 cubic light years. Using a stellar density of 0.0032 stars per cubic light year, I estimate that there are approximately 1,675,516 stars within this area of space to select from."

Mike made a rude noise. "Is that all? We'll be done by lunch!"

Bobby looked aghast. "One million, six-hundred-seventy-five thousand..."

"...five-hundred-sixteen stars," Illia finished patiently. "One thing we do know from the histories is that Erenar circled a G- or F-type yellow-white dwarf star, of the type which approximates the sun of Earth. The prevalence of such stars in any given volume of space averages about ten percent, reducing our search to 167,552 stars. This number is probably very high in this instance, as the average depends entirely upon the area of space involved, and I can already see that the number of F- and G-type stars here is lower than that."

"That's still excessive," Charlie pointed out. "There must be some way to narrow it down even more."

"There is. That area of space has been surveyed by probes guided by artificial intelligences like myself, and while few of the systems there have actually been visited, extensive long-range studies have been made, including reliable spectral analyses of most of the star group. We will begin by eliminating all stars of spectral classes which differ from the target F-G range --"

A vast amount of the stars on the projection suddenly vanished.

"Wow," Bobby said, smiling excitedly. "That was neato."

"I've eliminated competing spectral classes, most of which were red dwarf stars. As you can see, the ten-percent average for yellow-to-white F- and G-class stars seems not to hold true in this area of the spiral arm. We are down to about eleven thousand stars now."

"That is still far too many to search," Pacha pointed out.

"Agreed. So next we eliminate the known multiple star systems, where there is more than one star in the primary grouping. Most are binary pairs, but some groupings are larger. Erenar was known to have orbited a lone primary."

More stars vanished, dropping the numbers by at least a third. "That reduces us to about seventy-three hundred stars. Next we will take a piece of historical documentation, which places the star shepherding the planet Erenar within twenty light years of a K-class supergiant star, near which the Battle of the Three Fleets was fought. K-class supergiants are relatively rare, so this fact will surely reduce the numbers dramatically."

More stars vanished, leaving only...

"I count three," Mike said quickly, as if to confirm the number to himself.

"Are you sure that's right?" Charlie couldn't help asking. Considering the number of candidate stars they had started with, the sudden drop to just three was stunning.

"The clue of the K-class supergiant is the most important piece of the puzzle," Illia said, sounding amused. "There is only one such star in the entire cluster that holds the destination area. I wanted to begin with the total numbers and work it down, as much for dramatic effect as to show you what a task it can be to locate something in a galaxy this large. Short exact coordinates, we have been extremely lucky to arrive at only three possibilities for our destination."

Mike laughed. "A real showman you are, Illia. I had a feeling you had an ace card up your sleeve, though."

"It wasn't magic, Mike. It was science." But the shipmind sounded pleased at the compliment, just the same.

"Okay, so now we have an idea where to go," Charlie acknowledged. "Now we need to deal with the issue of the time away from home this mission will surely take. That means getting Frit and Pip here, and enlisting their aid on that."

Kippy emitted a small grunt. "The sooner the better. I don't want my parents suddenly wondering how all of us got out of the house without them hearing or seeing us."

"That will not be a problem while we are in the Cooee," Pacha reminded. "No time at all will be passing for your parents."

Kippy laughed. "Yeah, but we're not in the Cooee yet. So let's see about calling in Frit and Pip."

Contacting the two teen elves was a hit or miss proposition. They seemed to have the same awareness that Max possessed, and knew when Charlie and the others needed them. But the two younger elves were much more likely to be involved in something that might cause a lapse in their attention, and so less likely to respond immediately.

Charlie figured that Max was already aware of what they were doing, simply because they had discussed calling him in to help. But the older elf would not interrupt his important mission unless their need grew dire, and Charlie did not want that to happen. Pacha was a very able practitioner of ka, apparently simply another name for the same sorts of abilities that Earth's elves possessed. Charlie had stopped thinking of it as magic, because it had been proven to him that it was a science, even if an exotic one.

Pacha's abilities mimicked Max's in some cases, while the two differed in other areas. They had been teaching each other, and having a grand time of it, and both the elves and the Kifta had benefited well from their friendship. Charlie did not doubt for a minute that Pacha would be able to handle this new quest of theirs.

"Okay, everyone, think of Frit and Pip, and that we want them to come and --"

Charlie felt the tiny movement of the air, and then stepped back automatically as three elves appeared in the control center.

"Hi!" Frit said immediately, grinning around at everyone.

"We're here!" Pip added, his smile just as large.

"And right on time, too," Frit finished.

The two elves were immediately encircled, hugged, squeezed, patted on the back, and otherwise made welcome. Ragal was introduced, and then Frit turned and pulled the third arrival up next to him. "This is Keerby, everybody. Say hi to the fellas, Keerby!"

"Hi, fellas!"

Charlie immediately grinned, his eyes moving to Kippy, who was clutching at his chest and rolling his eyes dramatically. Keerby was a teen elf just like Frit and Pip, and just as cute, with dark hair, long eyelashes framing cheerful green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a smile that would melt butter.

"He's a time master," Frit said then.

"A real prodigy," Pip agreed.

"Aww," Keerby said, looking embarrassed. "I'm okay at it."

Charlie had not really expected someone so young to assist them with time, which he considered a fairly complex subject. But Frit and Pip assured them that Keerby was a wonder with everything from milliseconds to millenniums, and more than up to the task of allowing them to be away from Earth for however long they needed, without anyone at home being the wiser.

"I've already started," Keerby told them. "We're out of the flow of what's happening back home even now." He looked around at the interior of the ship, gave a little smile, and then nodded. "Once we go into the dark place, um --" he turned and looked questioningly at Frit.

"The Cooee," Frit supplied. "Mike named it."

"Right. Once we go into the Cooee, I'll keep an eye on the temporal frames we pass through, because I've been told they're not uniform everywhere in that place. We don't want to have that messing us up, either."

Everybody seemed to start talking at once. Kippy, who was closest to Charlie, gave a little sigh, his eyes bright, and smiled. "Looks and talent," he said softly. "I think I'm in love."

Charlie sighed, and took his finger and gave his boyfriend a playful poke. "Yes, you are. Remember?"

Kippy's smile turned to a grin. "Are you jealous?"

Charlie eyed Keerby, and then returned his gaze to Kip. "Should I be?"

Kippy sighed, moved closer to Charlie, and gently hugged him. "Never. My heart belongs to you, Charlie Boone."

"Okay, then. Stop playing around and let's get on with this." But Charlie gave Kippy a quick kiss on the cheek, just the same.

Charlie turned then, and held up a hand and waved it, and the conversation quickly wound down. "Frit and Pip, are you coming with us, or just Keerby?"

Frit looked alarmed. "Try to stop us!"

Pip nodded vigorously. "You need us!"

Charlie held up his hands defensively. "Okay, okay. I'm just asking." He looked around and did a quick head count, and then laughed. "Thirteen of us, counting Illia. There's a recipe for trouble!"

Everyone laughed, and Adrian caught Charlie's eye. "Hey. Thirteen is a Halloween number, after all."

Ricky grinned at that, and leaned closer to his boyfriend. "Too early to say 'boo' just yet!"

Adrian nodded. "I hope." He sighed, rolled his shoulders, and swiveled his head back and forth a few times, as if to release some tension in his neck. "Just a feeling I have."

Kippy looked over at him. "Not just you."

Charlie immediately frowned. "Your skwish acting up, Kip?"

"Well...I don't know. I don't feel like we're in any danger. Yet."

"Just that there may be some, somewhere ahead," Adrian said, quietly.

"Yeah." Kippy nodded. "So let's all be careful, okay?"

Ricky stared at his boyfriend a moment, and then put an arm around his shoulders. "We'll be alert."

"Should I be notifying Murcha of this new adventure?" Illia asked then. "His ship would be better armed to voyage into unknown territory than our own."

Charlie smiled at that. Illia and Murcha - the ship mind on their own vessel, a small scout ship 'borrowed' from the Moth - had hit it off well, developing a relationship that would be termed 'romantic' had it been observed in organic lifeforms. Illia and Murcha loved to get together, and so it was no surprise that Illia would ask about the possibility now.

Pacha looked contemplative a moment, and then nodded. "Perhaps it would be wise to use the Moth scout. The Moth excel at the devilish aspects of physics, and that scout is the equal of five ships like this one. No offense meant, Illia."

"None taken, Pacha. I am well aware that this vessel was designed for peaceful exploration, not the sort of bullying entry into new territory that the Moth are so good at."

"Please contact Murcha, then," the Kift advised.

"I have just done so. He is engaged under contract to transport the royal narfaball team of Secular Rhodopolia to the Ten-System Games on Dorsalad 7. He will not be available to join us for another day of subjective time."

Kippy smiled at the exchange. "What's 'Secular Rhodopolia'?"

"The people of Rhodopolia are split into followers and non-followers of the local belief system. The faithful do not believe in games, especially not games with other races on other worlds. So sports teams must specify that they do not represent all of Rhodopolia, just those that don't believe in staying home."

"A single day isn't bad," Pacha decided. "Murcha has to honor any transport contracts he has engaged in, certainly. Is Onglet still with him?"

Onglet was the second Moth shipmind that Max had freed from the restraints of Moth security. After their mission to thwart the plans of the Moth warlord T'ath at Mufa'alatara, Onglet had been installed in an office on a hub space station along a busy galactic transport route, and charged with the business end of obtaining transport contracts for Murcha and the ex-Moth scout ship to fulfill. He had been performing his job with great zeal, but had tired of 'sitting behind a desk', so to speak, and asked to be permitted to join Murcha on some of his runs. Despite the two shipminds feeling a loyalty to Max and Charlie for freeing them from their servitude to the Moth, Charlie and the others viewed the two as free agents, and had told them they could do whatever they wished.

Murcha and Onglet had come to think of themselves as part of Charlie's group, and had placed the profits of their transport enterprise at Charlie's disposal, along with their own desire to be included in further adventures. Charlie had a vague notion that he now had access to some millions of credits had he need of them, but so far he had not come up with a single use for that kind of cash. To his knowledge, Empire Credits did not spend well on Earth.

"Yes, Onglet is still aboard," Illia said.

"That's fine." Pacha turned to the three stars still hanging in the air between the illuminated columns, and waved a small hand at them. "We will need to check all three solar systems, unless we get lucky early. But first, we wait for Murcha and Onglet. I think Engris will be a good rendezvous. Please notify Murcha, Illia."

Pacha waved at the image between the two columns, and the three target stars vanished, to be replaced with an image of Earth from high orbit. Charlie took a breath, thrilled as he always was at the beauty of his home planet, and Kippy rubbed up against him and sighed.

The planet suddenly shrank away from them, in seconds going from filling the view to a small blue dot floating among the stars, and then vanished altogether. And then the stars themselves vanished, to be replaced with the oddly flowing darkness that was the Cooee.

"Okay," Charlie said, glancing around at the others. "Everybody wish to go to Engris."

There were smiles and nods, and Ragal came over to stand beside Charlie and Kip.

"It is fascinating to be back among the living, Charlie. I am having a very good time."

Charlie smiled at the alien. "Is that how you view all of this?"

"I can't really see it any other way. I understand that the reason I am here may be to help deal with something important and possibly dangerous. But that does not detract from the enjoyment I am receiving from knowing all of you. This is the purpose of my species; or, it once was. To know others, and bring others together. It makes me happy to be able to pursue this course once again."

Charlie nodded, feeling that Ragal meant exactly what he said. "I just wish we knew what we were up against."

The alien closed his eyes, as if that somehow opened a door for him elsewhere. "I think...I think we may get a clue, once we reach Erenar."

Kippy sighed. "Then let's get this show on the road."

They had had no difficulty at all in locating Engris. Or, rather, the planet had let itself be found, shortly after they had wished to go there. For Charlie it laid to rest any last doubts he might have been holding about Ragal and why the alien was there among them. Charlie trusted Pacha's instincts, and the little Kift had shown nothing but acceptance for Ragal and the things the alien had told them. Charlie's own heart seemed satisfied that Ragal only meant to help, and that the alien truly had no idea why he was among them.

But Engris was not the same as one of them. Living beings were fallible. Whatever motivated the planet's instincts, it was far older and far more experienced than any of them could ever be. The proven fact was that no one with malice in their mind or heart would be allowed to find Engris, and that they had been allowed to reach the dark world and land there with Ragal aboard ended any worries Charlie might have been having about the reasons they were again out in space. Yet it wasn't until after they had arrived at the port by the main city that Charlie had considered the idea that Pacha might have chosen the ancient world as a rendezvous just for this very reason.

A test, now passed.

"You're getting to be a cynic in your old age," Kippy had said, when Charlie had confided his thoughts to his boyfriend. It had been during a quiet moment together in what served as the bathroom aboard the Moth ship, and Kippy had been surprised when Charlie had mentioned what had been on his mind. "The ring convinced me that Ragal was okay before we even left home," Kippy continued, smiling, and then placed a kiss on Charlie's cheek. "But I know you're just being careful."

"I am," Charlie agreed. "Some of the people I care the most about in the whole universe are here. I don't want anything to happen to them."

Kippy had nodded, and rubbed his cheek against Charlie's. "My skwish tells me we need to be careful. But I don't sense any disasters ahead just yet. Now take a piss, and let's get back to the others."

Illia had used the ship's facilities to provide Ragal with clothing, manufactured to the alien's specifications. The result was modest, a basic long-sleeved shirt over a pair of somewhat baggy pants, both a warm gold in color. Shoes had been provided that fit the alien's feet, though Charlie would have more likely termed them 'moccasins' had he seen them on a pair of human feet back home. They were soft and leathery-looking, yet were certainly tough enough to take whatever might come. Charlie had developed a great deal of respect for the materials sciences of those that traveled the stars. The things they made, no matter how comfortable and luxurious looking, were more durable than anything made back on Earth.

During their day-long wait for Murcha to arrive, they visited the pirate market. Though Ricky was wearing the vibratory blade he had purchased there during an earlier visit, no one else had brought their treasures along with them. Pacha was happy to let them look around again, saying that there was more than enough surplus spending credit in his ship's account to cover anything they might want to buy.

Frit and Pip immediately headed off together, pulling Keerby along, saying they wanted to show the elf around the market, and that they'd be back. Charlie called after them to be careful. He wasn't worried about the elves starting any trouble, but he was worried about what they might buy. Frit and Pip were somewhat unrestrained, and Charlie could imagine them returning with just about anything.

"Would you like me to monitor them?" Kontus asked, as Charlie watched the three elves disappear into the crowds.

"Would you? I mean...they don't really need monitoring. Just make sure they don't buy something too big to fit inside the ship, or something crazy. Or let someone take advantage of them. I don't think that will happen here on Engris, but you never know."

The big Trichani laughed a booming laugh. "I have already learned of their exuberance. I would not mind at all." He turned, and started after the three elves.

Charlie sighed in relief, and Kippy patted his hand. "Be careful, Charlie. You're starting to act like a worried parent."

Charlie laughed at that, and offered Kippy a heartfelt kiss.

"Well," his boyfriend murmured, as they parted. "I guess I was wrong. That was about as unparent-like as you can get!"

Mike carried Pacha, and Ragal followed along, taking in the sights with obvious fascination.They wandered among the stalls and shops in a loose grouping for most of the day, looking over the loot of a thousand worlds, some of which had been dead for longer than even Charlie could imagine. Time spans among the stars seemed different than the measures used back home on earth. Human history was poorly documented beyond about three thousand years past, though there were sparse records that had survived from as far back as six-thousand years. Some of the cultures now traveling the stars had been doing so for even longer than that, with recorded histories going back to a time when anatomically modern homo sapiens were still just beginning to spread as far as Europe. And it was even a little scary to realize that a race like the people that had constructed Engris had been mastering advanced technologies at a time when humans were still taming fire.

Pacha laughed good-naturedly when Charlie brought up the subject, and patted his arm fondly. "It is the way of the galaxy, Charlie, and very probably, the way of the universe, everywhere. Peoples come and go. Even as we speak, there are races somewhere that are struggling through the last days of civilization, while elsewhere there are those just beginning to look at the night sky with wonder. It is the same with races as it is with individuals. Everywhere you go in life, you will encounter those that are older and wiser, and those that are younger and more innocent. Neither state is a measure of quality, but of experience. And that grows as we do, every day of our lives."

Charlie nodded, feeling a little better about it. "It's just a little intimidating, some of the things we've seen out here. Our planet seems a little old-fashioned to me now, sometimes."

"Your kind will have their day among the stars," Pacha reassured. "Technology builds at an ever-increasing speed the more you master it, and your people have reached the point where the stars are not so far away any longer. Give them time, and they will be voyaging out to join in with the community that exists here. Especially with people like you and Kip and Mike and the others to lead them on."

Charlie had smiled at that, and felt better afterwards. A lifelong reader, called Britannica Brain by his friends since grade school, Charlie was used to knowing things. Their recent adventures had driven home to him plainly the fact that human knowledge was but a drop in a very large bucket, a far cry from being complete. He was coming to realize how much there was out here in the universe to know. It had made him feel a little small sometimes, and a little unsure of himself. But Pacha's words had reassured him. Everything, including knowledge and the wisdom to use it, took time to acquire.

I'm just a kid, he reminded himself, smiling.

Kippy seemed to have no such reservations. He moved from booth to stall to tabletop in the marketplace, oohing and aahing over everything he saw, each new treasure just one more reason to smile and wonder. Charlie held his hand as they walked, absorbing some of that wonder, until he, too, was smiling at everything they examined.

"What do you think those are?" Kippy asked, when they stopped at a stall offering basketball-sized globes. The globes hovered in the air above the countertop, uniform in size but varying widely in color. Within each globe swam or floated strange small creatures that seemed to be all eyes and fins, and which gazed unblinkingly outward at them as they stood there.

The stand's proprietor was a tall, gangly fellow, with pale skin and sunken eyes, and thin, waving tendrils in place of hair upon his head. He was dressed all in black, and was as good an approximation of an alien mortician as Charlie had ever seen. But he greeted them with a cheerful smile, and waved a large hand with six fingers on it at his stock. "Greetings, hominids. To look about would be my wonderful wish."

Charlie smiled at the translation. Some alien tongues arrived into English with little in the way of trouble, because the original languages were constructed along patterns that were similar to human languages. Others made the transition with varying states of compatibility and completeness, while still others were hard to get at all. It was no fault of the Kifta technology, which was quite excellent. Some alien thinking was so truly alien that only basic exchanges could be made, while others simply were not expressed in spoken languages as humans understood them. And another group of languages were accompanied by accents, like generated smells, non-verbal sounds, pheromones, colors, or so called 'body flags', which could be any part of the body that moved, stilled, changed color, or otherwise displayed in a certain way as an accompaniment to speech, and the nuances of which the translator could not always decipher and take into account.

Kippy was enchanted, as always, by the globes, and reached a hand towards one, though fell short of touching it. "Ooh. What are these?"

The alien's smile widened into something that would have been impossible for a human to duplicate. "Your moods they sense, and would show you. Examine, please."

Kippy took that as permission to touch the nearest globe, a rose-colored orb, and laid his fingertips upon it. The creatures inside eyeballed him intensely, and the globe suddenly softened in color, and miraculously flowed into a gentle, peaceful shade of blue. Kippy aahed, and Charlie instinctively squeezed his boyfriend's hand.

"Calm, you are," the alien intoned. "Happy. Wonderful state."

"I get it," Bobby said, from Mike's side. "It tells you what your mood is, by the color."

Mike nodded, and leaned up against Bobby's shoulder. "Like one of those rings they sell back home are supposed to do."

Bobby looked uncertain. "What rings?"

Mike laughed. "Probably before your time, Bob. They're mostly sham, anyway." But then he nodded at the globes. "But these, if they really work? Holy Dooley, would these sell well back in Brissie!"

Kippy pulled the orb into both hands, turned, and offered it to Charlie. "You try it."

Charlie smiled, and took the globe into his own hands. It was lighter than he had expected, for he'd figured it was full of a liquid that the swimmers inside moved about in. But that was plainly wrong, and the orb could only be filled with air or some gas, instead.

Again the eyeball creatures inside turned, this time to inspect Charlie. The color of the globe intensified to an almost sky-blue, causing Kippy to ooh all over again.

"Calm," the alien said again. "With much curiosity. Affection for someone there, too."

Charlie smiled at Kip. "Yup."

"Is there a chart for that thing?" Mike wondered out loud. "Every shade must have a meaning."

Pacha asked to be placed on the countertop, and Mike set him there and went back to stand next to Bobby. The orb was passed around, and continued to display shades of blue, signifying peace and happiness. When it got to Ricky, a light gray halo formed around the calm blue center, and Ricky looked surprised. "What's that mean?"

"Calm, fortified, protective," the alien described. "You care much for someone's safety."

Ricky sighed happily, and smiled sideways at Adrian. "You got that right," he agreed.

The orb was passed to Bobby, who gazed expectantly into the eyes of the creatures within. Again, the orb was mostly blue; but then little green waves appeared inside and washed from one side to the other. Bobby looked amazed, and his gaze sought out the alien proprietor's. "What's going on?"

The alien looked somehow amused. "Calm there, too. But also much interest in procreation."

"Procreation?" Kippy gasped, and then suddenly laughed. "I think he means you're horny."

Bobby's cheeks reddened immediately, and he looked at Mike with fear in his eyes. Bobby thrust the orb away from himself then, and it sailed briefly towards the crowds around them before making a left turn and flying immediately back to hover above the countertop.

Mike sighed, and put an arm around Bobby's waist and tried to pull him closer. Bobby resisted, and looked frantic a moment, his eyes darting wildly about at the others.

"It's okay," Mike said softly. "It's not like they don't know already."

Bobby turned back to look at him then.

"It's okay," Mike repeated, smiling. His gaze was patient and fond. "These are my mates. Our friends. Relax."

Bobby licked his lips and turned his eyes back to Charlie and Kippy. Charlie nodded, took Kippy's hand in his own, and squeezed it affectionately. "We're happy for you, Bobby."

"Yes, we are," Kippy said, emphatically. "And about time, too."

Bobby bit at his lip a moment, and Mike managed then to pull him closer. "Are you sorry?" he asked then.

Bobby looked stunned, and then he and Mike watched each other a moment.

"No," Bobby whispered. "I'm not sorry."

"We're not, either," Adrian said. "You two are great together."

Bobby looked around again at the eyes upon him, and must have seen the truth of what he was hearing. "I'm...sorry. It's hard for me. It wasn't like this where I came from."

"We know," Charlie said, nodding. "But you're here now, and free to be who you were meant to be. Never be ashamed of it." He smiled at Kippy. "We are who we are."

Mike took Bobby's hand in his, and Bobby let him. He looked down at that clasp, and finally smiled. "I'm not ashamed. Just a little scared."

"That much is okay," Ricky said. "We've all been through that."

Mike sighed, looking playful then. "It's not like they know we've been bumpin' uglies, or anything."

Bobby gave a startled laugh. "Mike!"

"Aw," Kippy breathed, smiling. "How romantic." But then he frowned. "I think."

Bobby's cheeks were red again, but this time he was smiling. "It sounds worse than it was."

Mike smiled. "I'll say."

Kippy looked from one boy to the other, and then smiled again. "Aw. How romantic."

The humans laughed, and Charlie breathed a sigh of relief. That Mike and Bobby were together now was something that needed to be out in the open. Charlie had been afraid that Bobby's upbringing in a past age might have ruined that; but now it seemed that the boy was strong enough to make the adjustment to a different mindset.

Pacha, still seated on the countertop, reached out and laid his fingers against a bright yellow orb. It immediately flowed into another peaceful shade of blue, but with tiny flickers of gold in it, almost like microscopic lightning bolts. The stand's proprietor looked interested then. "Power user."

"Just so," Pacha agreed. "These are not living creatures inside this orb?"

"No. Biological constructs. No need food or drink. Powered by gas mixture within. Last long time."

Pacha gave his version of a nod. "Thought so. They don't read like living creatures."

Bobby stepped forward then. "Could I get one? I mean, to take with us?"

The little Kift tchick-tchick-tchicked. "Of course. Select one."

Bobby's eyes went to the orb he had thrown away, which had resumed a place above the countertop and gone to a soft yellow. "That one."

"Come," the proprietor said, motioning to Bobby.

Bobby grinned at Mike, and then went to the counter.

The seller took the orb in hand, waved something over it, and then handed it to Bobby. "Will go with you now. Account will be charged. Thanking you!"

Bobby looked delighted, and gazed down at the globe, which had gone blue again. Somewhat tinier green waves were still present, though, and Mike came to stand with him. The two of them smiled at each other, and then turned back to the others. "This should be interesting," Mike said, laughing.

The proprietor of the stand bent and retrieved something from behind the counter, which proved to be a small, flat sheet of what looked like glass, but with a dark rim about it. He offered it to Bobby. "This, too. Is the color guide, so you know. Hold in front of orb when is reacting, and will tell you emotions within." The alien frowned then. "Not know your language, but can display Trichani and many other galactic tongues. You can translate?"

"Yes," Pacha assured. "Thank you." He turned to Bobby. "I'll have Illia add English to the device's memory for you."

They moved off as a group, Bobby holding his orb before him, which remained a peaceful blue, but with the occasional green wave running through it, which made both Bobby and Mike laugh. Charlie smiled at that, and squeezed Kippy's hand.

They circled the market, and came upon Kontus, standing with Frit and Pip and Keerby. The new elf was standing still, his arms raised at his sides, while a small alien danced about him, taking measurements, and doing things to a bright red, green, and gold garment that Keerby was wearing. Kippy grinned at Charlie and sprang ahead, pulling him by his hand. "This I've got to see!"

Nearby Keerby, what looked like a tiny rain cloud floated in the air. On it's side was displayed an exact likeness of Keerby, moving as he moved, smiling as he smiled, and also dressed in the colorful outfit that was part Shakespearean play, and part clown college. It reminded Charlie of a uniform worn by the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, except this one seemed to be alive somehow. The colors crawled and danced across the material of the outfit as the tailor worked. The finish of the suit had the sheen of satin about it, and a strange life to it as it moved to conform to Keerby's physique. The little alien tailor sang and chortled to himself as he manipulated the fit with two tiny, glowing eggs held in his hands, which he waved about like a maestro before an orchestra.

The boys watched in wonder as the suit continued to conform to Keerby's body, tucking in here, making accommodation there, until the fit was absolutely perfect. The result modeled the elf's body without showing off too much, yet also suggesting quite plainly that the body beneath was in a fine state of physical condition. As the alien tailor stepped back with a satisfied sigh, the colors that had been running riot over the surface of the material began to blend together, forming lighter and lighter shades, until, quite suddenly, the outfit was a pure and snowy white.

"Wow," Kippy breathed, tossing a smile at Charlie. "Was that something, or what?"

The small rain cloud now also displayed Keerby in the white suit. The elf inspected himself in the surface of the misty viewer, and smiled. "I think I'm feeling magenta today."

The suit of clothing briefly flickered, and was suddenly a vibrant shade of magenta. The raincloud also showed Keerby attired in similar fashion. The elf turned slowly, eying himself in the mist, and then nodded. "Not bad."

"It's wonderful!" Frit said, grinning.

"Gorgeous!" Pip added, nodding.

Kontus frowned. "It's a little hard on the eyes, but I'm not one to judge another's taste in clothing."

"Any color you wish, just say," the alien tailor said. "You like?"

Keerby grinned. "It's perfect."

The alien seemed pleased, and waved a hand at the little rain cloud, which contracted and disappeared. "Thank you. Account charged when you leave. Please come again."

Keerby walked over to Charlie and Kippy, and turned slowly in front of them, showing off the new suit from every angle. "What do you think?"

Kippy immediately smiled. "Beautiful! And the clothing is nice, too."

Charlie hooted, and gently elbowed his boyfriend, who looked pleased with himself. "Well," Kippy said unabashedly, "I'm being totally honest."

"Waste of time," Pip whispered, sliding over beside Kip. "Keerby has a girl back home."

Frit grinned. "Can't win 'em all!"

Kippy sighed, and gave a little shake to his head. "Beauty has no gender, guys."

Charlie was about to comment when he looked to their right, and saw the proprietor of another stand watching them. He felt an immediate sense of recognition, though could not remember where he had seen the alien before. He was a small, quite hairy fellow a little shorter than they, with very large, liquid brown eyes that managed somehow to look both interested and bored at the same time. Charlie stared a moment, feeling he was being rude, but certain he had seen the alien before.

The other settled it for him. He reached down to the countertop before him, lifted a coppery square of metal, and waved it at Charlie, offering a crooked variation on a smile to go with it.

Of course! This was the vendor that Charlie had bought his treasure from, the square of alien metal that showed whoever held it the place he or she loved the most. Home!

Charlie turned to the others. "I want to stop by that stand there next."

All eyes turned that way, and the alien looked momentarily surprised, but then offered up the crooked smile again. Charlie headed towards the next stand with Kippy in tow, and the others followed along behind.

"What are we doing?" Kippy whispered.

"This is the guy that sold me that metal square that shows anyone that holds it his home."

Kippy increased his pace and came up along side Charlie, his face displaying renewed interest. "Hey, that thing was great. I wouldn't mind having one for myself."

They crowded together before the stand, gazing down at what lay on the countertop before them. There were a dozen or more of the copper-looking plates, each with a satiny finish that suggested red gold. Kippy pointed at one, and then gazed questioningly at the proprietor, who immediately looked even happier. "To pick one up," the fellow said. "To hold in hand."

Kippy did pick up a plate, and smiled as it darkened and colors flowed across the surface. In a moment his house came into view, and then the view moved forward, through the front door, and climbed the staircase to Kippy's bedroom. Kippy sighed, and leaned up against Charlie. "I love this thing." He turned to Pacha. "Can I get one?"

The Kift emitted a small laugh, and waved at the entire group. "All of you, feel free to purchase items here in the market. Do not be shy, please."

Mike gave out a soft laugh of his own. "We're loaded, especially after the Tower of Arimides deal. Have fun, gents."

Kippy placed his plate in his pocket, and Adrian and Rick each got one, too. Bobby examined one, waited for it to show him his home, and then carefully placed the plate back on the counter. "I don't think so."

Mike put an arm around his shoulders. "I can understand that. You sure?"

The other boy nodded. "Yeah. There's nothing there for me now."

Charlie was saddened by that, but knew there was no going back for Bobby. Time was a complex thing, and once it had made its decisions, the results were often irrevocable. Too bad there wasn't some sort of arbiter for time, someone or something you could go to when life handed you a lemon, and complain to about...wait. Charlie suddenly froze, stunned, as an idea hit him, one he should have seen all along.

Max had a knack for handling time, though the elf had never made any mention of being able to move backwards or forwards any great length within it. Slowing it down or speeding it up was one thing, but traveling in it was another matter, entirely. But there was a person who Charlie knew who could do both of those things, and do them well: Nicholaas.

What if Nicholaas were to send Bobby back to just after the moment in time when he had been kidnapped by the flying saucer? A loop in time would be created, but one that returned Bobby to the age in which he had originally lived. His grandmother would still be alive, the people and places that Bobby knew would still be there...Bobby's life would still be there, waiting for him to pick it up again. He need not lose it all, as he had done now. He could have his life back, if he wished it.

But...what, then, of Mike? That the Aussie boy had developed feelings for Bobby seemed clear, and Charlie was certain that those feelings were reciprocated. The idea of separating them with an unbridgeable gap in time seemed horribly unfair. And Bobby would not be free to be himself if returned to the era in time from which he had come. The idea that he might never otherwise find love was just too painful to consider.

"Charlie?" Kippy whispered, peering closer. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Charlie nodded. "Just thinking about something."

Kippy watched him a moment, and then frowned. "Well, stop thinking so hard, will you? It looks painful even from here."

Charlie smiled at that, and nodded. "Love you, Kip."

Kippy broke into a smile, and leaned forward and kissed Charlie's cheek. "Me, too. Now stop looking like you're constipated. We're supposed to be having fun, right?"

"Right." Charlie relaxed his shoulders, and sighed. The thing about moving in time was that Bobby could spend as much of it here, in this present, as he liked, and then still go home if he wanted to later on. So perhaps Charlie would discuss the boy's situation with Nicholaas at some point...or not. There would be no use in getting Bobby's hopes up if Nicholaas knew a reason it could not be done. And Charlie couldn't talk to Nicholaas right now, so there was no use dwelling on it and worrying about it.

Kippy watched him a moment longer, saw the decision to relax appear in Charlie's eyes, and then smiled. "Look at the other stuff this guy has for sale."

Charlie nodded, and let his eyes roam across the countertop. The right side was covered with the coppery-looking plates, with gaps here and there among them now that the others had purchased theirs. The middle of the counter was a jumble of oddball items, none of which immediately attracted Charlie's eye. He moved to the left, looking over what was there. The left side of the counter was covered with neat rows of flat metallic ovoids, also a coppery color, and Charlie was suddenly struck by the similarity in appearance to the plates that showed one his home.

"Oh...these look like they were made by the same people that made the plates."

Kippy nodded. "They do have the same look, don't they?" He glanced up at the proprietor, who had taken notice of their interest and moved over to face them. "What are these?" Kippy asked.

The alien's brown eyes looked amused. "Most unusual toy. To take one in hand. To try one."

Kippy grinned, obviously seeing it as a dare, and dropped a hand and picked up one of the ovoids. He held it in his hand and looked down at it, obviously waiting for it to do something visual. Charlie watched, too, expecting almost anything to happen.

So, after a full fifteen seconds in which nothing at all happened, Kippy looked disappointed and cocked his head at the proprietor. "What's it supposed to do?"

The alien pointed at Charlie. "Friend?"

Kippy smiled. "Well, of course."

The alien bobbed his head. "Good friend?"

Kippy's smiled widened, and his eyes sparkled at Charlie. "The very best."

The alien nodded. "Touch friend."

Kippy looked surprised, but then grinned again, and reached his free hand towards Charlie. "What will it do, give him a shock or something...?"

The moment Kippy's hand landed on Charlie's arm, both of them gasped. Charlie stared at his boyfriend, who had suddenly changed magically in appearance. It was as if a bright, silvery light had sprung up behind Kippy, outlining his form, and a gentle breeze arisen to tousle his blond hair. His boyfriend's eyes were large and luminous, and full of love and desire for Charlie. Kippy's skin glowed a beautiful golden brown in color, the most perfect summer tan ever, and his flesh looked sooo smooth, sooo soft, sooo appealing...

Charlie leaned forward, at the same time that Kippy did, and they grabbed each other. The hand with the ovoid in it got pressed between them as they kissed. Charlie opened his mouth and met Kippy's tongue as it thrust forward, and immediately there was a titanic rush between Charlie's legs, and the boner of all boners popped upright in his pants. He could feel the solid press of the same thing in his boyfriend's pants, and Charlie thrust one hand up inside Kippy's shirt, determined to rub and caress that beautiful, inviting flesh...

He felt hands grab hold of him, and suddenly he and Kippy were being pried apart. Charlie resisted, could also feel Kippy doing the same thing. But more hands grabbed Charlie's shoulders, and then he and Kippy were yanked apart.

Charlie blinked, suddenly feeling the incredible lust he'd been feeling just drain away. Kippy stared at him, his chest rising and falling, as if he still wasn't sure what had happened.

Charlie turned his head. Ricky and Adrian had him by the upper arms, and were watching him with a combination of worry and laughter in their expressions. Across from him, Mike and Bobby had Kippy restrained in the same fashion

"Apologies," the alien proprietor said immediately, looking quite concerned now. "Could not imagine the strength of feelings between two. To turn down the power. To limit the force."

Kippy raised the ovoid and stared at it. Everyone stared at it.

"I could make a bundle selling those things back on Earth," Mike said, under his breath.

"Would sell well on Roorapynta, too," Kontus rumbled, laughing.

"This thing did that?" Charlie asked, turning now to the stand's proprietor.

"Only amplifies feelings already there," the alien said. "Works small with most species." The alien couldn't seem to help smiling then. "Works large with yours."

"I'll say," Ricky said, shaking his head. "Another few seconds and you two would have been ripping each other's clothes off."

"How terrible," Kippy said, smiling. But his eyes conveyed to Charlie that he didn't think it was terrible at all.

Charlie couldn't help laughing. "Yeah, I'm not sure I'm ready to be doing that in public."

"Only amplifies feelings already there," the alien repeated. "Must be strong already, you two."

Kippy gave a little tsk. "Well, duh."

Charlie sighed, letting his gaze go back to the alien. "You say there's a way to turn it down?"

The proprietor extended a hand, and Kippy reluctantly handed him the ovoid. The alien took it between two thick fingers and squeezed it. There was a click, and the two halves of the ovoid came apart. The proprietor leaned forward, and showed them a small rotary dial now exposed within. "Was turned to half power. To turn it down, I think."

Charlie merely gaped at that. Half power!

Kippy clapped his hands together, grinning. "Ohmigod, Charlie! Could you imagine what that would have been like turned all the way up?"

Ricky laughed, and held up a hand and moved it as if he were tracking a newspaper headline. "Teens destroy neighborhood in fit of passion."

"I like it," Adrian said, rubbing his shoulder against his boyfriend's. He waved a hand at the alien proprietor. "Can we get one of them, too?"

Bobby immediately leaned over to Mike and whispered into his ear. The Aussie boy grinned, and held up a hand. "Yeah, us, too."

Frit appeared out of nowhere, Pip right on his heels. "We'll take two!"

Everyone laughed at that. "You only need one," Kippy explained.

Pip shrugged, his eyes merry. "Won't know until we try two!"

Even Kontus got one, his expression suggesting that a use would be found for the device when he eventually returned home. Charlie laughed at that, and at the apparently universal appeal that being royally horny seemed to have for everyone. His imagination stopped at Trichani sex, though, the term 'breaking the furniture' taking on a brand new meaning there.

The purchases were made, and the vendor looked quite happy. "To enjoy, please."

"We will!" Frit said, grinning.

Pacha'ka and Ragal had watched everything with apparent good humor. "I would suggest we return to the ship now," the Kift said. "We will want some rest before Murcha and Onglet arrive." He looked pointedly at the boys. "So put away your new treasures until you get home."

Everyone laughed at that. Ragal came over and smiled, and nodded to Kippy and Charlie. "This is great. I'm having a wonderful time."

Charlie smiled at Kippy, who smiled in return. "I'm not doing too badly, myself," Charlie said.

The Lollipop landed on the field nearby Pacha's ship at the end of their first day on Engris, just as Murcha had promised. Charlie couldn't help smiling at the transformed ship, disguised by Max on their last adventure together to look like the yacht of a rich playboy, an illusion that Murcha had decided he liked and had kept in place. Gone was the sinister black hull studded with the many Moth devices of inspection and destruction. The vessel now seemed smooth and golden, circled by several rings, and bore a charming logo that depicted a sun rising above the curve of a blue world. It looked like the sort of vessel you'd see bringing in master bakers to a chocolate chip cookie convention, perhaps to Mars, or maybe even to Neverland, instead of a scaled-down version of a Moth battleship. It was the perfect disguise for a craft that was far more lethal than its size would lead one to believe possible.

They moved from Pacha's ship to their own, taking the small orb that contained Illia with them. There was room in the special drawer beneath the central display in the Moth ship for all three artificial intelligences, and Illia seemed pleased to join Murcha and Onglet there. Pacha's ship was secured, even though they knew that no one would bother it there on Engris, not even if it sat there for an eternity. While those possessing both the nerve and the talent to possibly breech the ship's defenses might make their way to Engris, no one with the will to commit the crime itself would ever be allowed to land there.

"The course is set, and if there is no further business to tend to here, we can depart," Murcha said, as everyone found a place to sit or lean. The pylon-seats arranged around the central display were too few in number for the size of their party now, and Murcha had the vessel provide additional seating for the others. Kontus lowered himself carefully into the rather fragile-looking chair provided for him, as if expecting it to collapse immediately beneath his weight. But Moth technical superiority extended to materials as well, and the seat gave no indication whatsoever that it might be overburdened by the Trichani's considerable mass.

"I think we are through on Engris for now," Pacha said, looking about at everyone. "Shall we depart?"

"I'm good," Mike said, nodding. He smiled at Bobby, who smiled and nodded, too. Mike pointed at the overhead. "That way!"

"This will be fun!" Frit said, looking overjoyed at the idea of another journey with his friends.

"The best!" Pip added, rubbing up against his boyfriend.

"I think we're all ready," Charlie said, looking around at Kippy and Ricky and Adrian. "Guys?"

"Let's roll," Kippy returned, with an enthusiasm that made Charlie smile.

"We can look around the market again on the way back," Adrian put in.

"Yeah, we only saw a little of what was there this time," Ricky said, patting the hilt of his vibratory blade. "I'd like to find that big guy who sold me this and see what else he has."

"And we want to try to see Billy and Will at the spirit dome," Kippy reminded. "It wouldn't be Halloween without seeing them."

"We can do all that on the way home," Charlie agreed.

His gaze went to Ragal, who nodded at him. "I'm ready, of course. I am interested to see what clues Erenar holds for us."

"And you're having a good time, too," Charlie added, smiling.

"Of course." The twinkle of good humor in the alien's eyes was pronounced.

Kontus issued forth a rumbling laugh. "Another great adventure in the offing, I think." His muzzle wrinkled in good humor. "Grand was the day you and yours came to visit Roorapynta, Charlie Boone."

"There does seem to be a fortunate chain of circumstances in play that continues to bring us together with those of like minds and spirits," Pacha agreed, giving the equivalent of a nod. "It has strengthened us considerably." He gave out a small laugh. "But if our group gets any larger, I'm afraid we'll need a bigger ship!"

Everyone smiled at that, and Charlie knew that the Kift was kidding. They could double the size of their party and still have plenty of room inside Lollipop for everyone.

"We could always borrow a larger vessel from the Moth," Onglet said, apparently missing the humor. His voice was softer than the intense baritone that Murcha possessed, offering an impression of a milder character. Yet the two artificial intelligences were equally easy to get along with, and both seemed to have a positive opinion of the universe now that they had been released from the restraints imposed by the Moth.

Illia was similar in spirit, though could be a bit feistier, and she wore her freedom as a right, since she had never borne the collar that had restricted the Moth intellects. Knowing Murcha and Onglet had been beneficial for her, illustrating quite clearly that such freedoms were not a guarantee everywhere in the galaxy. Once a bit possessive of Pacha and his ship, she had come to accept the idea that accomplishing a great goal was a much easier task with more hands to guide and guard the experience.

Charlie smiled at Onglet's suggestion, and especially at the idea of borrowing from the Moth. The Moth were not the sort you casually took from. "Nah. I can't see us cruising around in one of those big Moth battlecruisers. Someone might sneeze and vaporize a city or something."

"It would be perfectly safe," Murcha said, also missing that Charlie was kidding. "There are multiple safeguards in place."

"I think we're good with this small ship for now," Charlie went on, grinning. "And speaking of that, I think we can head on out now."

The central display showed the port city off to one side, artificially lit beneath a black and imposing sky. In an instant that vanished, and so did Engris, and they were off to find their fortunes in the vast Cooee.

"Any idea of the subjective time we'll need to get there?" Charlie asked of Murcha.

"It's a respectable distance," Illia offered, instead. "Even by galactic standards. As far as our recent voyage to the...the Crab Nebula, you call it, although in a different direction in the sky. Slightly more than six-thousand light years. It will take us approximately a week of ship time to arrive."

Charlie whistled. "Wow. I think that's the farthest me and the guys have been yet."

"What about the Beltracian arsenal planet?" Adrian asked. "That was far away, too."

"Not quite as far," Mike said. "And that was in a different direction yet again."

Bobby gave out a soft sigh. "I still can't get over being so far from home. I never even dreamed anything like this could happen to me."

Mike smiled at him, and leaned his shoulder against his boyfriend's. "I don't think any of us ever imagined something like this. I've spent an arvo now and then reading space tales when I was a little tacker, but I never thought I'd be out here roamin' the back of Bourke, either."

Bobby laughed, his eyes widening. "You're regressing, Michael."

Mike nodded. "I'm an Aussie, bub. I've been learnin' to talk like a Yank, but it doesn't make me one, and never will."

Bobby bumped his shoulder gently. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

Mike grinned, and then looked around at everyone watching them. "Buck's night out, this is. I got no wucking furries. Time to nick off, I say, and have a squizzy at this planet Erenar."

Everyone laughed, even Ragal. "And just when I thought I understood the language, too."

Mike laughed at that. "Aw, most people back home don't talk that way. I was just havin' a little fun with you."

Kippy gave Charlie a plaintive look. "A whole week until we get there. What are we gonna do with ourselves?"

Ricky and Adrian grinned. "I'm not telling," Adrian said.

Kippy scoffed. "Remember, there's no privacy here."

"If you require privacy, arrangements can be made," Murcha said then.

Kippy brightened, his eyes going to Charlie's. "We'll let you know."

The first system they inspected was a wash. There was only one rocky planet, and it was at the furthest limits of the Goldilocks zone, cold and icy, showing blue hints of water and green traces of life at the equator, only. The other four planets in the system were gas giants much further out, and devoid of the requirements for life as they knew it. Murcha moved them on to the next system, a day-long voyage in which they pored over the countless images taken by the ship's sensory gear of the ice planet, looking for anything that might resemble animate life in the warmer equatorial zone.

The resolution of the images was phenomenal, and they easily picked out herds of large, shaggy beasts as they roamed the tall grasses of the temperate plains, along with smaller animals that seemed to be hunting the larger animals in packs. At the end of the day they had identified several dozen different animate lifeforms, but none that seemed to carry anything like a tool or weapon. There were no signs of intelligent habitation, nothing that might indicate that even a very primitive society was in the making.

"Might be too early yet," Charlie supposed, just before they called it quits and headed off to bed. "Or, maybe this planet will never know civilization. Just because there's life there doesn't mean that one species will become ascendant."

Kippy sighed, and pulled his boyfriend towards the enclosed space containing their bed, that had been provided by Murcha. "That's enough, Charlie. Can't you think of something else you'd rather do?"

Charlie grinned. "Like what?"

Kippy pouted, and only smiled again when they were inside their private space, and Charlie had gathered him close.

They awoke to a gentle tone playing in the air, an indication from Murcha that they were about to emerge into the second system. The boys quickly got dressed and used the bathroom, and finally everyone assembled near the center command display. Ricky and Adrian were all smiles, and Bobby and Mike looked very pleased with themselves, too. Apparently, the decision to allow private sleeping quarters to those that desired them had been a popular decision.

The boys exchanged quick greetings, a few jokes, and then everyone found a seat for the coming show.

"Emergence in five," Onglet said, apparently driving the bus that morning.

All eyes focused on the center display. The gently flowing darkness of the Cooee lightened, and then vanished altogether, leaving a bright yellow sun in the middle of the view.

"Energy signature detected," Murcha said immediately. "Terrestrial planet identified at suitable coordinates."

"This could be the one," Pacha said, looking pleased. "The generation of energy must be considerable to register this far out."

"I am halting us at this point," Onglet spoke again. "The system ahead is full of debris, some of which is displaying energy signatures of its own, although at extremely low levels."

It soon became apparent that much of the space near the target planet was littered with junk of every imaginable size. Something huge and awful had happened here at some point in the past that had left the entire inner solar system a junkyard, and perhaps, a graveyard as well.

Charlie was standing near Ragal as he watched the display. The alien inspected the view in the display, and closed his eyes. After a moment, he nodded. "This is the place. I sense we are near our goal."

Charlie watched the other quietly a moment before speaking. "Are you a power user, Ragal?"

The alien smiled at him. "No. I am unable to manipulate energy in the way that Pacha does. That is not my gift."

"But you have some sort of extra thing going on, don't you?"

"Yes. My kind are sensitives, able to read the subtle clues of the universe that underlie all things. This is how I know we are near where we need to go."

Charlie smiled. "Got your own skwish going on, huh?"

"A proper analogy, actually. Your Kippy and Adrian possess early signs of this same quality."

Charlie turned and looked over at his boyfriend, who was smiling and talking softly with Ricky and Adrian. "I thought something special was going on there."

Ragal's eyes seemed to look inside Charlie for a moment. "You have your own...thing...going on, Charlie. You and Ricky, both. And even something special is happening between Mike and Bobby. I suspect that your minds are adapting themselves to the new circumstances of your lives, due to your travels about time, space, and the dimensions that support both."

Charlie blinked at that. "I don't feel any different."

Ragal laughed. "You won't. These talents are already a part of you. How they will eventually emerge, only time will tell."

"I have been analyzing the debris between us and the planet," Illia said, sounding excited. "Much of it would seem to once have been part of a vessel of some kind. Or many vessels, that is. Perhaps even hundreds, or thousands of them."

"The leftovers from some big space battle?" Ricky asked, shaking his head. "That's terrible."

"Agreed. What I have examined with my sensors indicates mid-expansion era technology, consistent with that used by the Athonar and the Karchee."

"Pretty old stuff," Mike mused. "Is it dangerous to us?"

"I would say not. Murcha? You know your vessel's capabilities better than I."

"I agree with your assessment. Everything I have examined thus far indicates a level of technology incapable of breaching the Lollipop's defenses. I feel it is safe to proceed at a reasonable speed. However, this will change our planetfall from two hours hence to eight."

"Start us moving again," Pacha instructed. "Highest speed possible consistent with safety."

A faint change in the sound of the machines beneath their feet signaled compliance with that action, and the Lollipop began a slow voyage into the debris field.

"I don't really see anything," Adrian said, after a few minutes. "Where's all this junk you were talking about?"

Murcha emitted a sinister-sounding laugh, causing everyone to smile. "There is a large amount of debris all about us, but space is a very roomy place. I would imagine that the scene here directly after the battle was extremely chaotic, with collisions between debris resulting in even more and smaller objects, and with some debris taking paths that ejected it from the system altogether. There has been time for this chaos to sort itself out somewhat. Each chunk of debris occupies a unique orbit, and there has been sufficient time since events transpired here for them to organize into something coherent. No doubt collisions still occur, but I would say they are not common any longer."

"What is all about us are the survivors," Illia put in. "Some chunks of debris are as large or even larger than our vessel. To impact one at high speed could be dangerous. So we proceed at a speed that allows us time to detect these chunks and still maneuver to avoid them. We are currently moving at the maximum safe speed for such a situation, about twenty miles per second."

Charlie couldn't help laughing at that. "That's, um...what, seventy-two thousand miles per hour?"

"A crawl," Onglet returned, just a hint of disgust in his voice. "It will take eight hours to cover the half million miles to the target planet."

"Enough time for breakfast and some pleasant conversation," Ricky said, offering his arm to Adrian. "Shall we adjourn to the breakfast room, my love?"

"Yes, we shall."

Charlie grinned, and moved over by Kippy and offered his arm. "Accompany me to the dining hall, my sweet?"

"Do we have one?" Kippy asked, smiling and linking his arm with Charlie's.

"Murcha, a dining hall, if you please," Charlie said, waving a hand in the air.

A long table was produced, and seats sufficient for all of them, and the treaded crawlers that served as an interface with the ship's kitchen facilities took orders and brought them their food. The time passed easily, as they talked about what they didn't know about their current situation.

"No one knows anymore what started the Athonar and the Karchee to fighting," Mike said, between bites of his food. "History says that the Athonar were a fairly serious bunch of traders specializing in exotic weaponry, while the Karchee were a rowdy lot of troublemakers, who seemed to have their fingers in all sorts of things. But you know how histories are. They're never written by the people involved. The Karchee apparently bit off more than they could handle with the Athonar, who had some weapons that nobody had seen before in these here parts of space. The Athonar were able to chase the Karchee all over the stars until they got tired of it, and then they simply challenged them to a duel, more or less."

"A duel?" Bobby asked, obviously enchanted with the tale. "You mean, like with swords?"

Mike laughed. "Yeah, except these swords had a real bite. The Athonar found this solar system, with the uninhabited planet Erenar in it, and built it up, and then dared the Karchee to come and take it away from them."

"Challenged them, huh?" Ricky said, shaking his head. "That's amazing. And the Karchee showed up?"

"Yep. And with about fifty times the ships anybody thought they had. It was a hell of a battle, by all accounts, of which there are a few. It was such a huge battle it kind of knocked both of them out of the fight, and there was no real winner."

Bobby sighed. "That was real smart."

"Uh huh." Mike shrugged. "Both sides got picked off by others afterwards, because they were so weak after the fight."

"That sounds like a nasty time," Kippy said. "It seems pretty peaceful out here now by comparison."

"Those were the expansion days," Pacha interjected. "Everyone was building an empire. And everyone was quick to guard what they thought was theirs."

"And everyone thought everything was theirs," Mike added. "There were a lot of races travelin' about the stars then - the same stars, too. It was an unusual period of time, in that a lot of races achieved star travel about the same time, and they were all close together. It didn't take much for people to feel threatened by others."

Kippy frowned. "It's not so different out here from back home, really. People fight over anything."

Bobby nodded. "And it's never the people that start wars that get killed in them. It's always guys like my dad, who was very happy raising a family and being a mechanic. Someone started a war, and took him away from us forever."

There was a bitter note to that, and Mike tightened his arm about Bobby's shoulders a little. "I'm sorry, love."

Bobby turned and smiled at him. "Oh...I'm not even sure where that came from. I'm the one that should be sorry."

Mike shook his head. "You never have to be sorry about the way you feel, Bob. There's always gonna be blokes out there starting trouble. You just have to do the best you can with it." He gave a little sigh. "It seems like the good people finally get together at some point and smack down the ones causing trouble. But it's usually pretty late by then, and the hoons have caused a lot of misery by the time they get theirs."

Charlie looked over at Pacha. "The centers of power today are much farther apart?"

"Yes. And boundaries have had time to become clearly defined. Even though there are still many problems within the empires of today, those we know of are very stable by comparison to those in existence at the time of the Athonar and the Karchee. And those two races are really only remembered today due to their conflict, and the one very great battle they shared here at Erenar. Little else is really known about them. Even the locations of their home worlds have been lost over time."

"That's a little creepy," Kippy said. "Doesn't someone keep records?"

"Many do," Pacha returned. "But our galaxy is a very active place. We only know a very small part of it, and even then, the part we know is far from fully explored. The number of stars is staggering, and life arises in the most surprising places. Peoples come and go, empires rise and fall, and records are often lost in the chaos of the aftermath. There have been a considerable number of sentient species that have made their way to the stars in just the last million years. Considering the vast distances, and the vast periods of time, we know quite a lot about the past, actually. And we are learning more, all the time."

Charlie turned to look at the display. The tiny dot of a planet was visible now, centered in the view. They had yet to see a single piece of floating debris with their eyes, though Murcha assured them that they were passing through a very thick field of it. Only the powerful defensive technology of the Moth had kept the ship safe from harm.

"I never asked you, Mike - how long ago was this battle fought?"

"'Bout twelve thousand years?" Mike looked over at Pacha. "That right?"

"Approximately. Perhaps a bit more. It occurred in the interval between the disappearance of the Beltracians, twenty thousand years past, and the rise of the present five empires, seven or eight thousand years ago."

"Wow," Bobby said softly. "Wow."

Charlie nodded. Wow was the correct word.

Kippy stared at the distant world. "Do you think there's anyone left living there?"

"I have detected no life at all, though there is something odd about the planetary scans. We'll need to get a little closer to determine the reason for this anomaly."

When they were within five hours of travel left to reach planetary orbit, the world of Erenar was more than large enough to study, appearing even larger than the Earth did from lunar orbit. To say that this new world was peculiar looking was an understatement. Where the earth, as seen from her moon, was a large blue ball wrapped in the white swirls of clouded weather systems, and showing the distinct browns and greens of land masses, Erenar was a milky white orb with no features visible whatsoever.

"It's huge," Charlie said, staring at the image. "Much larger than Earth, isn't it? I thought it was supposed to be an earth-like world?"

"It is," Murcha returned. "What we are seeing is not the planet itself. It appears to be some form of defensive layer."

"What's up with that?" Kippy asked. There was a shine to the white orb, almost a hard look about it, making the world look like a giant pearl floating there in space.

"The planet appears to be shielded," Murcha announced then. "What we are seeing is a planetary defense barrier."

Charlie stared at the world in the display. "You mean, like an energy screen or something?"

"Yes. It reads as a polyphasic barrier, consistent with the defensive technology available in mid-expansion cultures."

Mike shrugged. "So...what? It's pretty primitive compared to what you have available?"

"Yes. It would be relatively ineffective against modern weaponry, and make a poor defense for a vessel. However, on a planetary scale, driven by ground-based power sources, it remains an effective physical barrier even today. The ship will not be able to break through it."

Charlie felt the first touch of disappointment. "You mean we can't land?"

"Not at this moment. Given time to diagnose the phasing pattern, and then to build the proper neutral pole, we could poke a hole in the shield and enter."

There was something unenthusiastic about that response. Charlie frowned. "I'm guessing that might take some time?"

"The phasing patterns are layered, and each is encrypted to the point of almost pure randomness. It's a fairly primitive defense by current standards, but the numbers that need to be crunched are huge. A larger, purposed encryption mind could probably break it in a few hours, but we don't have such a mind here. Onglet and I will have to tackle the job ourselves. I would guess it will take as long as a month to arrive at the correct solutions for all layers."

"That sucks," Ricky said, stating the obvious. "We came all the way out here, and now we can't land?"

"Wait one moment," Murcha said then.

The view in the display suddenly zoomed in with incredible speed, causing everyone to gasp. Kippy's fingers tightened reflexively around Charlie's wrist, making him laugh. "Whoa!"

"Sorry." Kippy flashed a smile his way. "I wasn't expecting that."

"You and me, both." Charlie peered at the display, which was now showing a strange, eight-sided construction of some sort that actually seemed to be resting atop the white shielding. The thing was heavily damaged, scarred and blackened, with whole sections missing, through which the white of the shielding showed.

"What's that?" Adrian asked, just before Charlie did himself.

It was Illia who answered. "It would appear to be the terminus of a ground to orbit transport system. A space elevator."

Charlie gaped at the screen. He had read about such things, which had been theorized back on earth. Humans were still working on a material strong enough and light enough to construct such a device, though with the synthesis of carbon nanotubes and diamond nanothreads, it would not be long in coming. But...

"I know a little about this," he said. "There's supposed to be a huge counterweight at the space end, and it's supposed to be well above geostationary orbit."

"The shield itself supplies the necessary tension to allow the elevator tube to function," Onglet replied. "Although a construction of energy, the shield's polyphasic nature gives it the solidity of matter. A null collar about the base of the terminus pierces the shielding, through which passes the tube of the ground to orbit carrier. The actual terminus station rests atop the shielding, and provides the anchor for the upper end of the elevator."

Charlie shook his head. "The shield would have to rotate at exactly the same rate as the planet for the elevator tube to work."

"It does," Illia said. "The shield orbits with the planetary equator, in precise alignment. There appear to be other terminals spaced about the circumference of Erenar, all above the equator."

Charlie blew out an excited breath, once again amazed at the sort of technology he was seeing out here in the galaxy. And according to Murcha, this was primitive by modern galactic standards!

"Have you detected any life below?" Pacha asked.

"No. The shielding tends to attenuate the scans somewhat, but the surface seems barren of life."

"They must have abandoned the place after the battle," Ricky suggested. "I mean, it was just built as a lure for the Karchee, right? They wouldn't have had much use for the place after it was all over."

"Perhaps," Murcha agreed, although the shipmind did not sound completely convinced by that reasoning.

"Why is the shield still working, then?" Charlie asked. "I mean, if they all left the place, why is it still running after all this time?"

Murcha sounded fascinated himself by this new experience. "Even mid-expansion era power technology was quite advanced. Ground-based systems of the sort that could power a defensive shield like this one would be enormous and redundant, and certainly built to last. The space elevator system was dependent on the shield for support, and the planet required it to keep at bay unwelcome visitors. I would think the shielding here was designed to be permanent."

"Agreed," Onglet said. "Each terminal was probably shielded itself at some time, though that shielding was weaker than that of the planet itself, and evidently breached in the battle. The terminal structures themselves were damaged or destroyed. Certainly they were weak points, and indicative of a defect in defensive planning."

Kippy's eyebrows went up. "You think all the terminals were destroyed?"

Charlie grinned. "Can we circle the planet, Murcha, and see if any of them have survived?"

"Proceeding." The terminal in the view slid away from their sight, leaving the hard white face of the shield to dominate the view.

Pacha gave out a small laugh. "Are you hoping to find a working elevator down to the surface, Charlie?"

Charlie shrugged. "Well, we can't take the ship through the shield. I don't see any other way down. Do you?"

"No. But your daring consistently amazes me."

Charlie laughed at that. "You mean if we find one that works, you're not coming along?"

"Oh, I'll come along, definitely. Once on the surface, I can always teleport us back to the ship, if the need arises." The little koala offered him an almost-grin. "I am just thinking about the advisability of trusting a twelve thousand year-old elevator car in an unknown state of repair to safely carry us the approximately twenty-two thousand miles down to the planet's surface, without killing us in the process."

Charlie smiled. "Well, when you say it that way, it doesn't sound like much fun!"

Everyone laughed. But Mike turned to the Kift, a shade of doubt apparent on his features. "It will either work or it won't, right? I mean, if we get inside and it starts down, it should get us to the surface. I've yet to see any tech out this way that didn't have so many safeguards built in that it would just sit and rust rather than put someone in danger."

"That's the technology we know," Kontus offered. The Trichani waved a hand at the screen. "We don't know anything at all about the things these people built."

"It will be moot if we do not find a working car," Pacha offered. "Let us wait until then to decide."

The next few terminal stations were like the first, soundly beaten by whatever forces had assailed them. But the seventh one they approached was noticeably different than the others. There were a few black weals across the armor of the outer structure, but they seemed not to have cut through. The terminal looked whole to a preliminary examination.

"This terminal is registering a power signature,"Murcha told them. "It has also made a query of some sort, which I take to be a 'what ship?' request."

"Can we answer that?" Adrian asked. "Does anyone know the Athonara language?"

"Some bits survive," Illia answered. "But this terminal will be looking for a specific military handshake of some sort. I doubt there is anything we can say that will cause it to open up and be friendly."

"Well, what will happen if we don't answer?" Ricky asked. "Could it be armed?"

Almost as if in response to his question, a white lash of fire whipped out, briefly washing out the image in the display. Charlie and the others flinched, but the ship didn't even vibrate, and in a moment the display cleared again.

"An inconsequential hit," Murcha said. "I have disabled the weapon, and four others like it on the roof of the terminal. I have overpowered the safety protocols in the communication link and am making a direct call on the mind the runs this facility. It's defenses are minor by current standards, and it is...there."

A vast section of the roof of the terminal slid back, revealing a large bay beneath, more than adequate to accept several vessels the size of Lollipop. In fact, there was already one ship least, that's what Charlie assumed it to be. It was boxy and slightly clumsy looking, and a far cry from the sleek ships of war that one would expect from a great galactic power.

"Cargo module of some sort," Illia decided. "Still emitting a faint power signature, though at a level perhaps too low for operation."

Their ship settled to the deck nearby the other craft, and the great door above them slid closed again.

"I am pressurizing the bay," Onglet said. "The heat there is operative, but at a low level. You will need to dress warmly."

Charlie looked around at the others. "So we're going?"

"Should all of us go?" Kippy asked then.

Ricky laughed at that. "Who would you suggest stay back?"

"You'll need us!" Pip said immediately. "Right, Frit?"

"We're going along," Frit said, firmly. "You'll need us to look out for you."

Charlie smiled at that. "And you'll need us to look out for you! So I guess we're all going." He turned to look at Ragal, who had been watching and listening to everything with a big smile on his face. "And you, don't say anything about how much fun this is. Just come along, okay?"

The alien laughed. "It's what I'm here for, Charlie."

Charlie grinned, and then looked up at the overhead. "Murcha? What have you got in the way of space suits that would fit a crazy bunch of humans and elves, a Kift, a papa-sized bear, and a guy who came from a ring?"

The Lollipop's landing tube descended, and Frit and Pip stepped out onto the deck of the terminal bay. They looked about quickly, and then grinned at each other.

"Seems safe!" Frit called.

"I don't feel anything bad!" Pip added.

Inside the ship, Charlie nodded to himself, and turned to the others. "Everybody ready?"

The two elves had insisted on being the first to go out, saying their powers of detection would quickly look around where mere eyes could not. Pacha had allowed this, even though his own powers were superior in strength to those of the two young elves. Charlie suspected that Pacha had already deemed the terminal station to be safe now that Murcha had taken control of the place, and so felt it was okay to indulge the two elves in their desire to be helpful.

Briefly, Charlie patted the satiny surface of his space suit, again marveling at how light it was. Murcha had directed them to a room they had not seen before, where each of them were presented with a suit. They were apparently available in only three sizes - small, medium, and large - with each size being rather at the extremes of each designation. Kontus and Ragal were each given large suits, the humans and elves each received a medium, and Pacha was presented with a small.

None of the suits fit at first, all being too large for everyone concerned. The suits were all alike in that they were black, one piece, opened down the front with some kind of nearly invisible seal, had two arms and two legs, and had feet built into them like a pair of toddler's rompers. The magic happened after you put them on.

After Charlie donned his, he pulled up the excess material so he wouldn't trip over it and stepped into a side chamber, where he was directed to close his eyes and keep them closed. That done, a battery of amazingly powerful lights of differing frequencies began to play over the suit, which quickly began to shrink and customize its fit to Charlie's body. It was the same sort of technology that the tailor had used on Keerby's color suit at the pirate market in order to fit it to his body, but all at once, and much quicker in action. In mere minutes, the suit fit Charlie as if it had been made especially for him. And Murcha had assured them that the suit would remember the fit, and that he would store them after this trip was done, for future use.

After their suits were fitted, they received gloves and helmets, which had apparently been made by the automated services just for them. The helmets were simple round globes, very lightweight, and transparent almost to the point of invisibility. Each had a gray collar about the bottom. The collar fitted into a similar arrangement at the neck of the suit, simply pressing into it and sealing automatically.

The gloves were almost filmy, and Charlie found that they gave his hands and fingertips a nearly perfect tactile sense, almost as if he was barehanded. He pulled the gloves on, and the tops seemed to bind some way to the sleeves of the suit, forming a seal. A tiny panel on the inside of his left forearm activated, and the air inside the helmet grew noticeably fresher. There were no oxygen tanks or other external devices, and Charlie barely felt the weight of the helmet. It was like wearing a pair of pajamas. Yet the suit would provide him with a breathable atmosphere pressurized to Earth normal, a comfortable temperature, allow him to communicate with the others, and provide protection against a host of ills, not the least of which was radiation of all forms.

A small, flat reservoir in a pocket on the right hip of the suit supplied water for drinking. In a vacuum or a hostile environment, what was inside was all there was. But in any atmosphere that contained hydrogen and oxygen, the flask had the ability to draw those elements from the atmosphere to make new water. Murcha assured them that the atmosphere on the planet would be more than rich enough to allow them to have ample drinking water. All they had to do to drink was turn their heads to one side and sip off a small tube, like a soda straw.

A reservoir in a pocket on the other hip carried a nutritious liquid that would handily supply their bodies with what they needed to keep going, although it would only carry enough to maintain one for about three days. Once ingested, it expanded in the stomach, not only providing nutrients, but also giving one the impression that he had eaten his fill. A similar straw on the other side of the helmet allowed them to access this liquid. A three-day supply was not much, but Pacha assured them that he could teleport replacements from Lollipop as needed.

Mike was given an additional small box, one with rounded corners and studded with tiny sensory gear on five sides. Illia would ride there, and have access to enough investigative technology to keep them apprised of their situation. The flat, unadorned face of the box simply bonded to the back of Mike's suit, and Illia seemed quite satisfied with her place there. Mike said he could barely feel its presence between his shoulder blades.

Murcha and Onglet would remain aboard Lollipop, already working on the analysis of the encrypted patterns of energy that comprised the planetary defense shield. The two of them, working in tandem, hoped to provide enough mental power to shorten the time needed to breach the shield and allow the ship to land. Charlie was not worried about needing the ship just yet, as he knew that the scans of the surface of Erenar had showed no life, and that Pacha could easily teleport them all back to the ship at any time. Or Frit or Pip, for that matter.

They were each also provided with weapons, in the surprisingly deceptive form of a small wristlet, which looked more ornamental than functional. It was one-piece, bore no controls of any kind, and was light and scarcely noticeable once put on. Yet Murcha assured them that the tiny intelligence inside was smart enough to assess the needs of most offensive and defensive situations, and provide the needed support.

This was their first up-close look at Moth personal military technology, and Charlie had to admit that it was stunning. There were other things stored in the tiny arsenal of their ship, the brief descriptions of some of which were frightening. Charlie had allowed for the necessity of the wrist weapons, but had resisted taking anything more dangerous along. They were amateurs here, playing about in a dangerous pool of dark water, and no lifeguards were handy. The last thing they needed was a mistake with something that could erase sizable sections of cities if mishandled.

They took turns descending the boarding tube, two at a time, until all of them were standing in the terminal bay. The place was enormous, and constructed all of gray steel of some sort, smooth of finish and deftly put together without any signs of welding or rivets. One thing Charlie had already learned about the technology of star travelers was that their things all seemed finely made, assembled with an art and strength reserved only for the best items back on Earth. Quality was a given out here, not an expensive luxury. The better a technology became, it seemed, the easier it was to provide finesse to its products.

"That way," Pacha said, pointing at a large archway to one side.

Charlie couldn't help smiling. Pacha was riding in the crook of Mike's arm, his tiny spacesuit looking like doll clothing, and the koala's face just adorable within the faint shine of his helmet globe. As probably the most dangerous individual among them, it was a counterpoint that Charlie found amusing, and certainly one that would not be at all apparent to any onlooker. Pacha would be their Ace card, just as Max often was when he was along.

Frit and Pip immediately bounded towards the archway, and the rest of them turned to follow. The cavernous bay was well-lit, looking as if it had just opened for business that very day. Charlie took a long look at the boxy cargo carrier as they passed it, his instincts telling him that nothing that looked so clumsy could possibly fly, but his intellect reminding him that in space, aerodynamics were an unnecessary consideration in design.

They reached the archway and passed through, and arrived in a spacious corridor with many other corridors and doorways along its length. The overhead seemed unusually distant, and the doorways they passed were also of a height, suggesting that the Athonar had either been a very tall people, or one for whom the excess use of space was not a consideration when it came to their off-world constructions.

The corridor eventually opened into another spacious room, this one with transparent outer walls that gave a stunning view of the darkness of space beyond. Stars crowded across the inky sky, and for a moment no one could move, so stunning was the vista beyond.

"Well," Kippy finally said, his voice sounding rather small, "these people certainly knew how to impress."

Charlie laughed at that, and the spell was broken. They crowded before the transparent walls, admiring the distant stars hanging above the cool white plain that was the planetary defensive barrier. That plain stretched away from the window-wall, disappearing into its own curvature at a distance that took one's breath away.

"I wish I had a camera," Adrian breathed, shaking his head slowly back and forth.

"You do," Murcha's voice came to them. "Everything that happens around you will be assimilated by your helmets and stored here aboard the ship. You can review the account at any time later on."

Adrian grinned, and shook his head at Charlie. "This looks like it's going to be an awesome walk."

Charlie nodded at that, and turned his eyes to Pacha. "Where do we go next?"

The Kift pointed to a row of wide doorways across the room, all of which were closed. "Any one of them, I think."

"These doors are normally secured and require a pass," Illia informed them. "But Murcha has complete control here, and the locks have been deactivated. We can proceed unchecked at this time."

"Nice to have a master key," Ricky said, grinning. "Is there anything we can't do here?"

One of Murcha's sinister laughs came across the com, sounding particularly eerie within the confines of Charlie's helmet.

"I would advise you not to use the restroom facilities in that terminal station. I have detected a blockage of some sort in the main line to the recovery facility, indicating that a back-up of some sort would be initiated by clearing any of the receptacles."

Mike rolled his eyes. "I hate these budget holiday accommodations. Even the damn loo doesn't work!"

They laughed, and headed for the center door in the row of doors. It opened at their approach, parting in the middle and whispering quickly into the walls. Charlie stopped in midstep, and Kippy bumped into him from behind.

"What --?" And then he saw past Charlie, and gasped.

It looked as though the door opened directly onto nothingness. A vast well or shaft of some sort lay beyond, the far wall very distant, indeed. A myriad of lights played everywhere they looked, revealing immense machines and structures that they couldn't even begin to guess the purpose of, traveling down the walls of the shaft and disappearing into the gloom below.

"That looks kind of unsafe," Bobby muttered.

"It's an elevator car," Pacha revealed, sounding amused. "Not the car that will carry us to the surface, but one that will take us to that location. Apparently the Athonar liked an outside view most everywhere they went."

Mike moved closer to the doorway, and then turned and waved at them. "There's a floor inside. Come on."

They moved slowly forward, and entered the space beyond the door once they saw that there was indeed a place to put their feet. A large round platform of gray steel appeared, and it became apparent at the same time that it was held within a completely transparent tube that was invisible until you were right on top of it. Even then, it was barely there at all, and even Charlie felt uneasy as the doors closed behind them, and the platform began to descend within the tube.

It was almost as if they were sliding down the wall of the immense shaft. There was movement everywhere, as machines went about their obscure business, their true purposes lost in the immensity of time. That the terminal station was still functioning was readily apparent here, and Charlie briefly wondered if any of the machines they were seeing had stopped, even briefly, in the last twelve thousand years, to wonder where the people that had created them had gone. Everything they could see, all this motion and energy, had been going on just like this since the days when the Clovis cultures of early humans were hunting mammoth about the chill plains of waning ice age North America.

"Amazing," he whispered. "It's just...amazing."

Kippy moved closer and took Charlie's arm, squeezing it both comfortingly and for comfort. "Unbelievable," he agree, staring out at the immense vista.

Kontus looked about as if he saw stuff like this everyday. "At least it's roomy. I hate cramped quarters."

Ricky and Adrian were also standing quietly together, watching the scenery outside, and Frit and Pip seemed subdued as well. Mike and Bobby moved closer, and Pacha reached out a hand and laid it on Charlie's other arm. "Remember what I told you, Charlie."

Charlie blinked, and then smiled. "About us meeting others out here? And that the main difference would be our levels of experience?"

"Yes. What you see about you is grand in scale, but in this case it is more an epitaph than a monument to greatness. Such scale as this exists all over the galaxy, among many peoples that live there. You need not fear it, or feel small next to it. All you need do is enjoy it."

Charlie nodded. "These people are gone, as far as we know. But the things they did remain behind them."

Pacha moved his head in agreement. "It is such as this everywhere in the galaxy, Charlie. The quicker you get used to it, the easier it will be for you deal with the situations that need your attention."

Charlie laughed at that. "I don't think any of us ever imagined where it would lead, that time we first saw your ship floating above Myer's Hill."

Mike smiled at that. "I know what you mean, Charlie, believe me. It takes some getting used to out here.'s a stunner, once you do. The galaxy is just jammed with people, rising, falling, and everywhere in between. Lost worlds full of stuff like this --" he waved a hand at the view beyond the invisible wall "-- at every turn. All sorts of blokes were here before us. And what they left behind is just waitin' to be explored."

Kippy smiled. "Like the Tower of Arimides?"

"Exactly, Kipper. Now there's a tale! Remind me to tell you all about that trip, okay?" Mike waved a hand again. "So it's okay to gawk a bit, but don't let it overwhelm you."

Kippy made a face at being called 'Kipper', a term he had asked the Aussie boy not to use. But he understood now that it was used fondly, and let it slide.

Charlie sensed movement to one side of him and turned. Ragal was standing there, watching them, a smile on his face. Charlie sighed. "Not you, too."

"It is wonderful, watching all of you deal with these new things. Your resilience is admirable."

"My brain feels fuzzy right now, to tell you the truth."

Ragal laughed his raspy laugh. "It will pass, Charlie. There is much yet left to do here."

Charlie watched the alien a moment before replying. Ragal was always cheerful, but he was just a little bit enigmatic, too. Charlie understood that the alien didn't know why he was there among them, but he also sensed that more was becoming apparent to the man as time passed.

"You know something about this place? I mean, something you didn't know earlier?"

Ragal nodded. "I have come to the conclusion that the purpose of my rebirth is twofold, to be accomplished within the framework of two events, separated by some bit of time. Erenar is that first event. What we accomplish here will steady in some way the path we must take to our ultimate goal. But that goal may be some time in the future yet. Perhaps even years."

Kippy stared. "You mean we won't move on from here to another place? We won't go looking for more of the puzzle? We'll be least for a while...when we finish here?"

"Yes. Consider it a time to catch our breaths. Erenar is but the first step. The next one needs time to appear at our feet."

Charlie considered that a bit disbelievingly. "So we have to do something here, now, in order to accomplish something else, somewhere else, later on?"

"Exactly." Ragal's eyes twinkled. "Don't look at me like that, Charlie. I assure you, I am not playing games with you. As I said before, my kind are sensitive to the clues offered up by the universe. The ones I see here have suggested to me the probable course of future events."

Charlie sighed. "It's not that I don't believe you. I'm just trying to get it all straight inside my head."

Kippy sighed and squeezed Charlie's arm. "Not just you!"

Adrian laughed. "It's part of the fun, solving the clues and figuring out what's going on."

Ricky nodded. "I like puzzles, myself."

Charlie had to smile at that. "They are fun, aren't they?" He sighed, feeling better. As long as everyone was happy doing what they were doing, so was Charlie. "Then let's get going, and see what needs to be done here."

"I think we're getting closer to the answers," Kontus said, pointing below them.

Charlie looked down with the others. Their elevator was nearing the bottom of the great shaft, and about to head into a softly-lit tube in the machine-studded floor below them. Their speed became apparent as they neared the opening, and Charlie felt Kippy's grip on his arm tighten as they plunged into the hole.

"That was kind of thrilling," Pip said, grinning at Frit. "That's the fastest I ever went into a hole before!"

Both elves dissolved into laughter, holding onto each other tightly. Charlie grinned, wondering how he could ever have worried about the success of their mission.

Kippy sighed, and nuzzled closer to Charlie. It was a tribute to the tactile senses built into the material of their suits that the act was even momentarily arousing for Charlie to experience. He turned and smiled at his boyfriend, wishing intensely that the helmets weren't between them. He had to make do with an eye-promise, delivered with heartfelt emotion, one that Kippy picked up on immediately, and smiled broadly in response to. "I can wait," Kippy said softly, though there wasn't a bit of privacy on the group com they all shared.

The others seemed not to notice, though, being more interested in what was happening beyond the transparent walls. They had exited the tube on the other side of a massive wall, and were sinking into the center of the top of a broad, round structure. The elevator stopped, and the doors whisked open.

They exited the car, and found themselves in a large round room, one which seemed to go all the way around the central core. And a room which once again had clear walls all the way around it. There was darkness beyond those walls, but not a single star was visible. They moved as a group to stand before the transparencies, and then stood in silence at what lay beyond.

"We are inside the barrier," Illia informed them.

The clear walls curved inward at their feet, providing a more than adequate view. Beneath them, a planet spread out, its dark surface covered with lacy lines of light. Larger blobs of light occupied places where the lacy lines came together, forming a vast network that extended to every area of the visible surface. Charlie's first thought was that they were seeing cities connected together by roadways or railways or some other form of transportation system. But he immediately cautioned himself not to place human parallels on what he was seeing. The network could be anything, even things he couldn't imagine.

"It's gorgeous," Adrian said, sighing. "But why is it so dark here?"

"The barrier does not transmit sunlight," Pacha said. "Nor any frequencies in addition to the visible. Whether that is a permanent feature of the shield or simply one that was activated during the battle and never discontinued, we have no way of knowing. Some mid-expansion era weapons used bursts of coherent light, or other radiations as their destructive means. A planetary shield would need to guard against them, as well as solid projectiles."

"No gravity vortexes back then?" Charlie asked.

"Not at that time. The theory was known, but devices could not be made small enough to be transported on warships."

"A dark planet," Kippy said, shaking his head. "Night, forever."

"That kinda sucks," Ricky said. "I like my sunshine."

Charlie looked to his right, and spied a slender thread in the distance, rising straight as an arrow from the planet below, to vanish against the dark sky. The view was deceptive, and Charlie realized that the thread was likely a lot farther away than it seemed. "I think I see another elevator," he said, pointing.

"One over here, too," Bobby said, from another window off to the left.

"There are a number of them, spaced equidistantly about the equator," Illia informed them. "By the spacing between the seven we inspected, I would guess there to be about seventy of the structures in existence."

Charlie blew out a short breath, trying to imagine the resources needed for such a building project, and wondering if humans would be able to produce such marvels in his lifetime. "I wonder how many others are operational - if any?"

"We can do a count before we leave, if you like," Onglet said over the link. "It is easy enough to detect the operational terminals from those no longer having power."

"I'll keep it in mind," Charlie murmured, staring at the distant thread. "Thanks."

"Oh, look here!" Adrian said, from another area of the room.

Charlie turned with the others, and crossed to where Adrian was standing. The other boy's eyes were wide with surprise, and he pointed at the deck beneath his feet as they came up beside him.

It was a window, actually just a transparent section of the floor. Beneath them was what appeared to be a massive cylinder, stretching away towards infinity, toward the darkness of the planet below.

"Another window here," Mike said, from nearby. "I think they're set into the floor all the way around the room."

Charlie walked slowly about the core of the room, looking down through each window he passed, until he arrived back at the others, who were watching him expectantly.

"That's the elevator cable beneath us, isn't it?" Mike asked.

Charlie nodded. "I think so." The room they were in was a ring, which circled the massive cylinder, and the cylinder was evidently the cable which reached all the way to the surface of the planet, 22,000 miles below. "We're in the elevator car."

"I thought you knew that," Murcha said, sounding apologetic. "Or I would have thought to tell you. Are you ready to descend?"

The others laughed, and Charlie rolled his eyes. "I guess that means it works?"

"All systems check out as operational. Though I must say the last time the car was used was...well, a long time past."

Charlie smiled at that. "You're getting a little more diplomatic these days, Murcha."

"I am trying to be reassuring," the shipmind returned, and Charlie could detect a note of humor this time. "I do believe the system is safe to use, despite it's age."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, and then looked skyward. "Any idea how long it will take to get to the surface, Murcha?"

There was another bout of sinister laughter, which caused grins to appear all around. "Would you like me to tell you how quickly the car can move, or would you prefer just a time of arrival?"

Kippy's eyes twinkled merrily as he considered the question, and then he shook his head. "Just tell me how long. I think I can imagine the rest."

"The journey to the surface will take just over one hour."

Charlie whistled, able to do the math. "The ring we're inside wraps around the cable, and rides up and down on it, right?"

"Yes. The mode of travel is electromagnetic in nature. To descend, the car is drawn downward at ever increasing speed, with gravity providing a substantial assist, and then slowed magnetically. Think of it as a kind of vertical maglev train, to use an analogy from your own world. It's quite efficient."

Kippy stared around the circular room. "They must not have had to move a lot of people at one time. I'll bet you'd be pressed to get a hundred people inside this thing. You couldn't evacuate a world in a hurry using one of these."

"This would seem to be a personnel elevator, only. I have analyzed the next cars over to either size of us, and they are cylindrical in nature and much larger, with a viewing area similar to this one located at the top. But the main bulk of the car would seem to be designed to ferry cargo, and the capacity is considerable. I would hazard to guess that this car was designed for the rapid transport of personages of note, who might need to get back and forth quickly. It may be why it still functions. The shielding it once employed may have been stronger than that of the other cars."

Charlie smiled at the shipmind's enthusiasm. "I guess we're ready, then. Let's go."

There was a brief sensation of the floor falling out beneath their feet, and then the downward motion stabilized, and Charlie suddenly looked up at a new motion above them. There were windows in the overhead, too, which had been darkened when the car was nestled up against the underside of the terminal collar. But now they could see the huge round structure as they dropped away from it, a semi-circle ablaze with winking lights wrapped about the top of the immense cable, which diminished incredibly rapidly as they accelerated downward. The cable above and below quickly became a dark blur, one which hurt the eyes to look at for very long.

Charlie moved back to one of the outer windows, and the others followed along, spreading out so that each could watch the world below. Charlie was astonished to see that their motion downward was actually visible along the curve of the planet, an almost imperceptible rise of the limb of the world, most noticeable between the blinks of his eyes. Already their speed must be something respectable. The high-speed portion of the trip would take place beyond the planet's atmosphere, with the car having slowed considerably by the time it reached the first wisps of air, several hundred miles up.

Ricky came over and stood beside him. "Is this awesome, or what?"

Charlie smiled, and looked beyond Ricky, to see Kippy and Adrian animatedly talking together. Mike and Bobby, and Frit and Pip and Keerby, were clustered together doing the same. Kontus and Ragal seemed to have teamed up at a window, and were calmly watching the growing lights and tracks on the planet below them. Pacha was in his usual spot in the crook of Mike's arm, his eyes closed in thought.

"Don't tell me your boyfriend abandoned you," Charlie said to his friend.

Ricky cast a quick glance over his shoulder, and laughed. "Nah. They're just talking skwish stuff together." Ricky's cheerful expression faded to a more serious one. "That's what I wanted to ask you about, Charlie. I...uh...I think Adrian is getting some skwish, too."

Charlie nodded. "I already noticed."

Ricky immediately looked relieved. "Oh, good. I'm glad it's not just my imagination."

"No. Ragal said he sensed it in all of us, though I don't feel any different. Do you?"

"Not really." Ricky's smile came back. "Though with all the crazy stuff we've been doing for the last couple of years, who could notice a little more strange?"

Charlie grinned at that. "Gotta agree there." He looked out the window again, and gave his head a slow shake before returning his gaze to Ricky. "Sometimes I have to wonder if we can handle all this stuff. I feel like we've been very lucky so far."

Ricky dropped a hand on Charlie's shoulder and gave him a fond squeeze. "I've never felt like we weren't going to make it, Charlie. I mean, with Pacha, and Max, and Frit and Pip can we lose?"

Charlie bit at his lip. "That's just it. We expect them to be able to handle everything that happens. And they may not always be around. And you kind of have to figure that, somewhere out here, we'll eventually run into someone that's even stronger than they are. The Beltracians were nearly as good as Pacha, remember? And the Moth were stronger than Frit and Pip."

"Charlie, are you worried about us? Because you shouldn't be. You're not dragging Adrian and me out here. We want to do this stuff." Ricky grinned. "We love doing this stuff."

Charlie looked across at Kippy again, and smiled. "Kip loves it, too."

"And you don't?" Ricky looked askance at him. "Come on, Charlie. Be honest."

Charlie laughed. "I love doing this stuff, too. I just think about the things that could happen to us out here, sometimes. If someone got the better of us, it would be just like we disappeared to our folks. They'd never know what happened to us. They sure wouldn't be looking up at the sky each night and wondering. They'd think something awful happened to us at home."

Ricky nodded. "I've thought about that, too. But I just don't feel like it's going to happen."

Charlie considered that, and nodded. "I don't, either."

"Then stop worrying. We're not being reckless out here. We have a lot of good thinking going on, and lots of great friends. And really, with Britannica Brain running the show, how can we lose?"

Charlie sighed, but couldn't help smiling. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. Just remember you said that when the huge alien battleships are smashing us with planet busters."

Ricky grinned. "Okay, I will, But until then, I'm like that guy on the Mad Magazine website. 'What, me worry?'"

"Nah. You're not like him. You're cuter than he is."

Ricky gently blushed inside his helmet. "So you're good?"

"Yeah, I'm good. I wasn't about to give up, or anything. I was just thinking a little."

"A lot, you mean." Ricky bumped his shoulder against Charlie's. "Sometimes you think too much. It's not good for you to focus on stuff that might happen."

"I get the message," Charlie returned, and patted Ricky's forearm. "Thanks."

They both turned and looked out the window again, staring down at the world beneath them. It was dark and mysterious, the lines and clusters of lights like a glowing spider web in the night. They were much lower now, and the edge of the planet had receded considerably. One of the blobs of light seemed centered beneath them now, with lines of light radiating in all directions. The idea that the lines were roads or transport lines of some sort was solidifying in Charlie's mind. Certainly, the elevators would be centers of a kind, and there would need to be a myriad of routes to access them.

"This place hardly looks abandoned," Charlie said, his eyes scanning the lights below.

Ricky shook his head. "No, it doesn't. It looks kind of busy, actually." He looked upwards, even though the action was totally unnecessary. "You sure there's no life here, Murcha?"

"We have not been able to detect any. Mid-expansion level technology was not up to hiding from modern sensory arrays. If there were somehow survivors here after all this time, they would be immediately detectable."

"If people were still here, their technology would be twelve thousand years more advanced, though, right?" Charlie asked. "Maybe they could hide from us."

"Granted. But the legends of this place do imply that it was abandoned after the Athonara and the Karchee decimated each other, and there is the gap of twelve thousand years to account for where no further information about either race has appeared. Erenar was supposed to be a trap for the Karchee, this world armed and defenses built expressly for that reason. But this was not an Athonara world, they just selected it for this purpose. It's remoteness from their other worlds was supposed to have been key to that choice.The Athonara would have had no use for the planet after the battle, and indeed, defending it further would have been an extreme liability for them in their depleted state. All the facts add up to this world having been abandoned. There are a considerable amount of energy readings still emanating from the surface, and we can see visible evidence that the technology is still active. My best guess is that these systems are still carrying out automated functions, but that no hands are tending them."

"So is the surface cold?" Charlie asked. "With no energy coming in from the sun here, it must be."

"It is not. Total conversion power technology existed even at that time, more than capable of warming a world. The surface temperature below is uniform, and would be chilly to humans dressed lightly, but quite livable. Your suits will keep you comfortable, have no doubt."

Charlie nodded. They were much lower now, more than halfway down, he figured, by his watch. More lines of light had appeared, thinner, and too faint to be seen from higher up. The planet was literally covered with them, yet the areas of darkness between them had to still be considerable, indeed.

"Any idea what the lines of light are? Roads? Rail lines?"

"Both," this time from Onglet. "And both still in use. Maintenance functions are still occurring, and even new facilities being constructed as needed. Supplies are still being transported from one place to the next. There is still a lot happening here, despite the absence of organic intelligent oversight."

"Isn't there a mind in charge of all this?" Ricky asked.

"There is," now from Murcha. "Quantum intelligences were available at that period, though of a much earlier generation, and not yet sentient in the manner that we are. It was no trouble to overpower the one that oversaw the terminal above, and the ones here on the planet are no tougher. The planet is apparently separated into zones, with each zone under the control of a single mind. There is a network that binds these minds together, and our initial probes suggest that this network is much closer to overall sentience than are the individual components. We are still treading lightly here, as a result. This group mind is heavily defended from trespass, and we do not wish to set off any of the safeguards in place. So I have to tell you at this time that we will not have total control on the surface as we did at the terminal station."

Charlie gave a short laugh at that. "And what does that mean, exactly?"

"We will not have immediate access to individual machines here. There will be a delay while we take more surreptitious routes to accomplish what we may need to do."

Ricky grinned. "So when the huge, many-armed bastankulator comes roaring at you, run, and don't wait for Murcha to stop it."

"Actually, that would be an advisable course of action."

Charlie laughed at his friend's words. "Bastankulator? What the heck does that do?"

Ricky shrugged. "Bastankulates, of course. You know how these alien machines are."

They laughed over that, attracting the attention of the others. Kippy's eyes flashed briefly at Charlie, and then he came over and nuzzled up against him. "Are you having fun without me?"

Ricky laughed as Charlie put an innocent expression on his face. "Me? Would I dare to do that?"

Kippy pouted, but it was playful, not serious. "Yes. Just because Ricky is taller than me, and has bigger muscles, is no reason to throw me over like that."

Adrian arrived then, and placed himself under Ricky's arm. "You leave my boyfriend's muscles alone."

Ricky laughed, and puckered his lips at his boyfriend.

Mike and Bobby were right behind Adrian, and Mike immediately patted Bobby's arm. "See? This is how it's done. You pretend you're jealous, and your boy-guy kisses you to show you there's no reason."

Charlie immediately turned his head and blew a kiss at Kippy's cheek. "Forgive me, my love. It was just a single moment of errant lust."

Kippy smiled, and gently smacked Charlie's arm. "Oh, shut up."

Pacha, still in the crook of Mike's arm, opened his eyes and looked around. "I believe we have encountered the edge of the atmosphere. Does anyone else besides me hear it?"

"I do," Kontus said immediately. "Faint, but it's there. The exosphere, I would guess. Next to a vacuum, but enough change in sound to prick my awareness."

"I hear it, too," Ragal acknowledged. "I have sensed the car slowing for some time now. I would say we have nearly arrived."

Charlie looked out the window again, and shook his head. Yes, they were much lower now, but still well above the surface. "You guys have some great ears. I don't hear anything different."

But ten minutes later, they all did. A gentle humming sound, as the car descended through the ever-thickening atmosphere.

They watched as the terrain below began to show more detail, and could make out mountains, lakes and rivers, and even individual lighted areas within the great clusters of lights. Away from the lighted areas, the ground was cloaked in darkness, a deeper night than they had ever seen before. As they dropped within a mile of the surface, great complexes of buildings and other works began to sort themselves out, and in the last thirty seconds of the trip they realized that there was not a single tree, plant, or any other sign of floral life visible.

A lit ring with a spray of buildings all about it seemed to rise to meet them, though Charlie knew it was only the car coming down to rest. There was the faintest sensation of impact, and then they were down. Charlie looked at the tiny chronometer on the inside of his helmet collar - the trip had taken just over an hour to complete.

They were silent, watching out the windows. They could see across a vast section of illuminated landscape, one dotted with a variety of structures, from what looked like storage tanks to graceful spires with no immediately discernible purpose. The ground was paved with a white material, smooth like finished concrete, and with the same hard look about it, yet plainly not that material, but something else.

In the distance, something large rushed by, visible between two large buildings, but moving so rapidly that it was just a blur. In a moment it was past, a brief flash of yellow lights at the tail end sparkling at them, and then gone. Charlie thought he heard a faint rumble for just a second, but the soundproofing of the car was probably excellent, and it could have been his imagination.

There were obvious walkways between the structures, even little squares here and there, and wider bands that had the look of roads. Yet nowhere was there any life to be seen, not on foot, in the air, or even growing along the side of the walkways, as might be seen on Earth.

Nothing at all.

Kippy blew out a faint breath. "This place is dead."

"I sense no life within range of my sensory array," Illia said then, from her box on Mike's back, "though machine activity is extreme. I suggest we be careful once we leave, as some of the machinery here seems to be moving about at high speeds. Be alert, especially on large expanses of open ground."

Ricky grinned at Charlie. "There's a cheerful assessment."

Adrian smiled, and pointed out the window. "Is this a Halloween sort of place, or what?"

"It's creepy," Frit said, coming up. "I sense all sorts of things going on out there, some of which I can't even describe."

"It's weird," Pip agreed. "We need to be careful."

Keerby just shrugged when Charlie looked at him. "It's temporally stable here. Nothing for me to do but keep up the differential rate between this frame and the one in effect back on earth."

Charlie laughed at that. "I take it to mean that time is passing slowly there compared to here?"

The elf smiled. "For every week we spend here, one minute will pass back home."

"How can you do that?" Adrian asked, looking amazed. "Doesn't it all have to equal out, somehow?"

"Oh, it will. That's the nice thing about time. It's flexible. There is an equalization going on even now, which I suspect takes place in some part of the black place we went through to get here. The Cooee?"

Charlie nodded. "The difference is somehow dumped there?'

"I'm not positive yet, but it seems a good guess. It could even explain the differences in frames there, like the one that Bobby experienced that messed up his time. Most of that place seems to exist in no-time naturally, but some places run in different temporal frames. This could be the result of time manipulation by people like me, out here in the temporally active universe. The compression or dilation of time has to equalize somewhere. I guess a place that is intrinsically no-time would be a great place for the universe to dump the differences. It's like a neutral pole, and easily absorbs the excess."

Pip sighed, smiling at Keerby. "Told you he was a prodigy."

Keerby looked embarrassed, and Charlie just nodded. "You're doing a great job. Thank you for coming with us."

"It's okay. I'm having fun!"

Charlie looked around, and spied Ragal standing by himself, off to one side. For once the alien was not smiling, and even looked to be concentrating on something. "Ragal? Everything okay?"

The man's eyes came up and met Charlie's, and he frowned. "Someone else is here."

"I am linked to the sensors aboard Lollipop, in addition to those in my own sensory pack," Illia spoke up. "I detect no life anywhere on this planet."

Ragal shook his head. "Nevertheless, someone else is here. I feel...we need to be cautious, Charlie."

"I already planned to be careful. We'll be even more careful now." Charlie let his eyes circle the group. "Got that, everyone? Stay together, no exploring on your own. Not even for a second. Stay safe."

The others nodded, and Charlie knew that they understood. In a way, the guys had become old hands at this kind of thing, even though their experience was still limited to a few adventures beyond the Earth. It didn't take much experience with the unknown to develop respect for it, and respect was the best sort of caution there was.

Charlie sighed, turning his eyes back to Ragal. "Any more idea on why we're here?"

" Nothing concrete. But I am beginning to suspect that this other I detect has something to do with it."

Charlie turned to Pacha, who had been silent thus far. "What about you? Can you sense this other that Ragal says is here?"

The Kift closed his eyes, and immediately shook his head. "I do not sense that there is another person here. I do sense that there is something unseen here."

Charlie's eyes widened at that. "Unseen?"

"Yes. It could be a life form. It could be something alive but not intelligent on our level." The Kift's eyes shifted to Ragal. "It could be almost anything."

Charlie looked over at Frit and Pip. "What about you guys?"

Both elves looked unsettled. "I just get that it's creepy here," Frit said.

"Scary, even," Pip added. "Everybody, watch your step!"

Charlie nodded. "No use putting things off. We might as well go on out."

The others turned and headed back towards the core of the car.

Kippy leaned up against Charlie, and gave out an almost cat-like purr. "Mmm. You sure know how to show a guy a thrilling time, Charlie."

Charlie laughed, but circled his arm about his boyfriend and pulled him close. "Just be careful, okay?"

"Yes, dad."

Charlie sighed, gave Kip another squeeze, and then started him after the others.

An elevator took them to the building underneath the car, and once again they were presented with a large, very empty room, with what looked like seating all about, though the Athonara had apparently considered comfort a non-essential, as the spare benches had no padding whatsoever. It looked like a fair number of people could sit here, though, surely enough to fill the elevator car.

It was only then that Charlie realized that there had been no seats aboard the elevator car. It seemed unusual that the riders would be expected to stand for the entire journey, so they must have missed something there. Perhaps concealed seating of some kind that had to be activated somehow.

"Now you think of that," Kippy said, giving him a fond push when he mentioned it. "Where were you earlier when we needed that thought?"

"The car's last duty may have been to move something other than people," Pacha said, overhearing. "Certainly any seating would be able to be stowed away to carry cargo, if the need arose." The koala's muzzle quirked in an almost smile. "Comfortable as I was in the cradle of Mike's arm, I did not think to look. My apologies."

Mike rolled his eyes at Charlie, and smiled. "He's gettin' a little spoiled."

They walked about the room, which was well-supplied with windows on the world outside, and finally found that several of the windows were actually doors, that slid aside when they neared them, giving egress to a wide walkway beyond. They emerged as a group, and stood upon the surface of the long-abandoned world. The buildings around them could have been located in any human city back home, the architecture appealing, but also somehow very utilitarian. The buildings all had light sources upon the walls, which lit the street between them as well as any sunlight. But the tall, narrow windows that adorned the facades of each building showed no lights shining beyond, and the doorways in each were equally uninviting. There was an unsettling, unwelcoming look to the place, almost like a black and white photo of the past, looking slightly unreal in the otherworldly glow from the lights on the walls.

Above them, the black, starless sky, endless and indifferent, completed the impression of utter lifelessness and abandonment.

"Nice," Kippy said, looking about. "Next trip we spring for a good hotel, okay?"

Charlie laughed at that, and the act did dispel some of the chill he had felt building. There was something unnerving about standing on a city street abandoned one hundred and twenty centuries past that looked as if it had been built only yesterday. That they were learning new ideas about time scales, that was for sure.

Charlie caught a motion out of the side of one eye, and turned just as something very large rushed by in the distance at the end of the street, between the two very long buildings that otherwise blocked the view in that direction. This time there was a distinct vibration in the ground, and a faint rumble reached Charlie's ears through the helmet pickup.

"Might as well go that way first and see what the hell that is," he decided.

"A transport of some kind," Pacha suggested. "A freight mover?"

"That would seem to be correct," Illia agreed. "There is quite a bit of such activity, all around us. We just cannot see most of it from here."

"That way," Pacha said, pointing down the street.

They started off, maintaining their group. The pavement underfoot even felt solid like concrete, though once they started walking it responded with a mild, rubbery give that Charlie soon determined to be actually caused by the soles of the feet of his suit. They were quite comfortable to walk on, relaxing any fears he might have been nursing about them needing to walk any great distance here.

"Charlie?" It was Murcha, calling over the com.

"Yeah? Everything okay?"

"No. I am losing your group on the scanner. You are fading out."

Charlie stopped, and the others stopped, too. "What do you mean, we're fading out?"

"Your life signatures are, now they do not read at all. I can no longer detect your group. It is as if you are not there at all."

"None of us?"

"No. This is troublesome. The planet registers as lifeless, but if there is something there that masks our scans, then you may not be alone there at all."

"We must continue," Ragal said emphatically. "We cannot let this stop us."

"I agree," Pacha said. "There is a plain feeling here of urgency, but for what I cannot yet say. But we must go on."

Charlie nodded at that. "Murcha? You can still hear me clearly, right?"

"Yes. I would be even more surprised if anything could interfere with the com."

Charlie rubbed at one eye, and nodded again, making his decision. "We're going to keep going, okay?"

"That is not advisable, but it is understandable, considering the parameters of this mission."

Charlie waved a hand at the group. "Let's keep moving."

At the end of the street, another huge thing went by, this time even time noisier, and with more of a vibration apparent in the ground. Again, in addition to the impression of size, there was the show of yellow and even green lights of some sort, but the speed was too great for much detail. Charlie had decided it was a train of some sort, and so was surprised when they reached the end of the street and found no tracks. Just a wide expanse of a more metallic-looking pavement, that stretched away to their left and right and disappeared into the darkness.

They walked past two brightly colored pylons on either side of the road, and on out to the edge of the metallic roadway.

Charlie frowned at it. "I thought there would be tracks here."

"That's what I was thinking," Ricky agreed. "Seemed like a train to me, a really fast one."

Frit leaned down and stared at the metallic surface before them. "Something strange here."

"It's an enhanced friction surface," Illia informed them. "Whatever travels here probably uses an equally attractive surface, which maintains a perfect grip on this runway. It would allow for high speeds with no slippage."

Ricky lifted a foot and daintily touched a toe against the metallic area before him. "Doesn't feel unusual."

"You would need the right counter-surface to feel the attraction..oh! Step back from the track!"

Pacha lifted a hand at the same time. "Everyone, get back!"

Frit swung an arm in a quick arc, and Charlie felt himself pulled quickly back to the street. The others backed up equally unnaturally, also in the grip of Frit's force. The hand that Pacha had raised wiggled, and a wavy but transparent barrier appeared before them.

Something huge came out of the night to their left and bulleted past them. Charlie had a brief impression of a very long, almost featureless cylinder traveling on a series of immense rollers as it belted past them. The wavy transparency in front of them shook with great force, and the ground beneath their feet vibrated. A rumble of fairly serious proportions accompanied the passing, and despite the length of the strange vehicle, it was gone in an instant.

The wavy transparency in front of them stopped vibrating, and then disappeared.

"That was close," Frit said, sounding a little relieved.

"Too close!' Pip agreed.

Pacha tchick-tchick-tchicked. "I think we're all in agreement there. I suggest we move back even further. The interval between these appearances seems not to be consistent."

"I'm so sorry," Illia said then. "The reach of my passive detection gear is only about four kilometers. At the speed that vehicle was moving, I only had about twenty second's warning."

Mike turned his head to peer over his shoulder, as if he might see the box on his back. "Why are you just using passive sensors?"

"Murcha, Onglet, and I agree that interactive sensing of the planet's surface will attract the attention of the planetary network mind, and we are not yet ready for that. We need more time to burrow within that network before we are exposed."

Mike laughed at that. "You don't think it's gonna see us walking all over the place here?"

'Actually, no, not the network. The mind that oversees this area will certainly take notice of us, but it will not report our presence to the network as long as we don't break any rules."

"And what are the rules?"

"Well, we don't actually know just yet."

Mike grinned at Charlie. "Are we having fun yet?"

"It's not their fault," Charlie said, although he couldn't help smiling. "I already know that all three of our shipmind friends are doing the very best that they can."

"Thank you, Charlie." Illia sounded almost embarrassed. "I suspect that the use of only passive scanners is also why Murcha can no longer detect us. Passive scanning is much less efficient than interactive scanning, and much easier to interfere with. But until we have more of a presence established within the planetary network, it would be inadvisable to announce ourselves with forceful scanning."

Mike sighed, hearing Illia's tone as well. "I know you're doing your best, too. I'm just worried that what we don't know here might bite us in the arse."

"I'm surprised that thing went by so fast," Bobby said, redirecting their attention to the metallic roadway. "I mean, so close to the buildings and all. That would be dangerous to people walking through here."

"There is an air barrier back at the edge of the buildings," Pacha explained. "Much like the one I deployed to shield us from the currents as that vehicle went by. It is activated by strong air displacement to shield the buildings and anyone on the street beyond, but we walked right past the perimeter without noticing. Hindsight, as you people like to say."

"Now he tells us," Mike said, but stroked the koala's fur affectionately. He looked back over his shoulder, and spied the two colorful pylons on either side of the roadway at the end of the buildings. "Those were probably the warning signs, too. What we don't know here may kills us if we're not more careful."

"Point," Charlie said. "Everyone try to take notice of stuff like that, and say something. In the mean time, I guess we ought to get back on the other side of them."

The group turned around, and crossed back to the pylons and stopped on the other side of them.

Ragal came to stand beside Charlie. "We need to go east, Charlie." He raised a hand and pointed to their right. "That way."

Charlie nodded. "Any idea how far?"

The alien looked uncomfortable. "Several hundred miles, I think."

Charlie stared. "Oh, is that all?"

"Yes. I'm sorry that my intuitions don't come faster. But we were bound to have to travel from the elevator. I had no idea how far." The alien smiled then. "Just be glad it's not the other side of the planet we need to get to."

"Oh, I am." Charlie grinned. "Now I'm just wondering how to get us all there."

Ragal leaned closer. "The vehicle that just passed us was going that way. I would presume that the next one to come along will be, too."

"There's an idea," Kippy said. "I've never hitchhiked before, but I always wanted to try it at least once."

Charlie stuck out his tongue, and Kippy laughed. "Well, maybe not. But I'm game this time, if we can get one of the things to stop and let us on."

"What about that, Illia?" Charlie asked. "Can you stop one of these trains?"

"That may be possible. Let me consult with Murcha and Onglet. A moment, please."

Ricky came closer. "You really think these are trains, Charlie? There's only one real long car. And no tracks at all."

"No. It's just the local variant, I guess. But we have to call it something." He pointed back at the metallic roadway. "That's not a track like we would imagine it, but it appears to be what lets the train go so fast. It sticks to the metal road, and doesn't slide off. I was thinking about what Illia said, that her sensors were only reaching four kilometers right now, and her only having twenty seconds warning." He leaned closer to Ricky and lowered his voice. "That means the train car was traveling at something over seven hundred kilometers per hour."

Ricky let out a low whistle. "What's that in miles per hour?"

" four-hundred and fifty."

Ricky's eyes widened, and then he grinned. "Britannica Brain strikes again."

Charlie sighed. "Am I going to have trouble with you, too?"

The other boy laughed. "Who's giving you trouble? You point me at 'em, and I'll tell 'em where to get off."

Frit and Pip joined them. "Something is strange here, Charlie," Frit said. "Pip and I both feel it."

"Scary," Pip agreed. "Ragal is right. Someone else is here. More than one, too."

The rest of the group crowded around them. "Who is it?" Adrian asked. "Anybody we know?"

Kontus immediately shook his head. "I cannot imagine anyone from our area of space being here. I had no knowledge of the location of this place, and I was privy to most sensitive information on travel, as well as having my own personnel interest in ancient empires."

"If we could find this place, someone else could, too," Bobby pointed out.

"Agreed," Pacha put in. "We cannot assume it is an unknown just yet." He looked up at Mike. "But there is someone else here."

Ragal looked about at them. "I am not familiar with the races currently inhabiting your area of space, so cannot offer any insight." He nodded at the two elves. "But I agree with these two that there is something unsettling about the presence here."

Illia chose that moment to re-enter the conversation. "Murcha and Onglet have managed to remove the next vehicle from the travel manifest of the local mind. Control has been handed off to me. I am slowing the vehicle, and it will arrive in about three minutes."

"Now we're gettin' somewhere!" Mike said approvingly. Bobby grinned at him, and Charlie once again could see the attraction and affection between them. He sighed and smiled at Kip, whose eyes twinkled back at him.

"Good job, Illia," Charlie said. "You, too, Murcha and Onglet. How's the decryption of the barrier going?"

"It is progressing," Onlget's voice returned. "We are devoting as many resources to the job as is possible while still looking out for your party on the surface."

"Let us know if there's any change, guys. And thanks."

They stood and watched to their left after that, and soon one of the strange vehicles materialized out of the dark, obviously slowing, making a faint slurping sound as the sticky rollers slowed on the metallic pavement. It came to a stop before them, and the group stared in silence, obviously impressed.

Charlie gazed wide-eyed at the vehicle, amazed all over again at the size of it now that he could get a really good look at it. The nose was rounded, the body cylindrical and featureless, and the distant rear appeared rounded, too. The entire thing rode upon a series of immense rollers, taller than they, dark in color, and absolutely smooth where intuition expected tread would be on a human vehicle tire. The top of the cylindrical body was easily three stories above them, and the length of the mammoth machine sufficient to play a football game on, had it been flat field.

Ricky whistled again. "That's one big rig."

"How do we get aboard?" Bobby asked, looking along the length of the vehicle. "Anybody see a door?"

"The machine is primarily a cargo carrier," Illia supplied. "There is a small maintenance cabin at the fore, and a lift device to take inspectors aboard. One moment, and I will bring it down."

They heard a whirring sound, and a line appeared in the side of the body of the vehicle just behind the nose. A long, straight rod the thickness of a forearm pushed its way out parallel to the body, and suddenly a flat platform descended the rod from above and touched down before them. Brief supports arose all around the platform, creating a sort of guardrail, and the side facing them opened out, obviously to allow admittance.

It was plain that all of them could not fit onto the platform at once. "We'll have to make two trips," Charlie decided.

"I would suggest we do that quickly," Illia said, "as I have no control over the next vehicle, and no idea when it is due to come along."

Charlie gaped, and then was herding people onto the platform. "There's probably safeguards in place, to keep one of these things from hitting another, don't you think?" he asked, as Mike, Pacha, Bobby, Kontus, and the three elves crowded aboard.

"I'm sure there is, for vehicles in the system. This one is no longer recognized, so those safeguards may not apply."

The platform took off upwards, and soon the others vanished from sight. A moment later the empty platform returned, and Charlie pushed Kippy, Ricky, Adrian, and Ragal on, and then climbed on himself. They started upwards, and Charlie felt like he was holding his breath until they arrived at the open doorway in the side of the vehicle. The platform, riding a straight rod, was a good distance from the doorway due to the curvature of the machine's hull, and Charlie was just wondering how they were going to cross when the platform moved closer to the doorway.

"Inside, quickly," Charlie said, waving his arms at the others. It was an unnecessary gesture, everyone readily able to imagine another of the giant machines striking their motionless one at over four hundred miles per hour.

They crowded into a narrow hallway, and the outer door closed behind them. There was a brief shudder that made them stagger and grab at the handrail along the wall, and then they could feel the vehicle start moving. A steady hum began under their feet, increasing in tempo if not loudness as the car accelerated forward. Charlie looked around the hallway, noting again how tall it was, and that the handrail was at shoulder height, too. The Athonara must have been impressively tall people, he decided.

They reached the end of the hallway and entered a larger room than Charlie had expected, from Illia's mention of a 'small maintenance cabin', and Charlie was immediately struck by the view. The nose of the vehicle was transparent from the inside, and they had a view forward and well back along each side. There were lit panels here and there, with indicators of some sort, obviously registering something of importance; but Charlie was lost in the odd script that flowed across the screens and captioned the many controls around them. Whatever was going on, it was lost in the same depths of time as the Athonara language.

And yet, there really was not a lot there. Most of the room was empty, save for several rows of unpadded benches that faced forward. The others had taken seats, their feet swinging just above the floor, again illustrating the height of the vehicle's former masters. Only Kontus seemed at home with the size of the seats.

Mike was the only one standing, just inside the doorway. "There you are. Made us nervous that we could feel this crate moving, and you hadn't shown yet. But Illia said you were aboard."

Charlie laughed. "We are, more or less. My stomach is still back at the crossroads."

Mike nodded. "Quick on her feet, isn't she?"

Kippy sighed happily. "At last! A chance to sit a moment and rest."

Charlie laughed, and patted him affectionately. "Are you tired?"

"No. But I would like to sit a little to take in the sights."

Mike rolled his eyes, but nodded. "It would be nice to feel a proper passenger, for once."

They joined the others, and climbed onto a bench. Charlie could already see by the way the landscape was passing outside that the vehicle was coming up to speed. Whole rows of buildings and other structures flashed past them with insane quickness, and the lights out there were blurs of motion as they rushed towards them and then retreated behind them. The roadway ahead was lit, almost as if it glowed from within, something they had not been able to see from the ground back where they had boarded. The ribbon stretched away from them, into the depths of the night.

But the distant horizon had a kind of glow to it, from the combined brilliance of the lighting everywhere ahead of them, and the effect was eerily disconcerting. The light slowly waned with height, and then vanished completely into the utterly dark sky above the horizon. Strange, dark clumps and vague, mysterious outlines marked the horizon in the light zone between sky and ground, probably more buildings and storage and whatnot; but nothing there was really recognizable. These shadowy objects could not even be named or really described, save for their impressive and undeniable sense of size.

It looked like the landscape from a horror movie, or a science fiction tale set on another world. Charlie could only smile at that idea. He was reminded of an old AC/DC song he had heard, called 'Highway to Hell'. It would have been a fitting anthem for their current travels down this ancient and truly orphic road.

"Spooky, isn't it?" Kippy asked, leaning up against him. "I can't imagine a more fun Halloween."

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and then opened them with a smile. "You never cease to amaze me, Kip."

"What? You don't think this is great?" The other boy inhaled hugely inside his helmet, and let the air sigh back out. "I love doing this stuff with you, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, and touched his helmet against his boyfriend's. "I'm dying to kiss you."

"I'm dying to have you kiss me, Charlie."

They stayed close a moment, looking into each other's eyes. "I love you so much," Charlie finally whispered.

Kippy looked touched, and gave out a quick sniff. "I know you do, too. And I love you back just as much."

Charlie let his eyes slide past Kip a moment, and noticed that the others were pointedly not paying attention to them. There was no privacy on the com network, though Charlie imagined there had to be a way to do that. bring it up now might cause a problem. He could imagine some two of them alone on a private channel, exchanging fond words, and missing out on something important. It could lead to disaster, and they certainly didn't want that.

Charlie let his eyes come back to Kippy's. "There'll be time, later."

Kippy nodded, and smiled. "I know." A touch of mischief came into his eyes. "Trick? Or treat?"

Charlie grinned. "I'll take a little of both, when the time comes."

Kippy nodded. "I'll be waiting."

Charlie sighed, gave his boyfriend one more good squeeze, and then sat back. "Ragal? At the rate this thing moves, we'll cross your few hundred miles pretty quickly. Any notions on that?"

The alien gave a small frown. "I sense that our objective is mobile. There is some sort of pursuit happening here, Charlie. The one I sense has others after it."

"I agree," Pacha added, from his perch on Mike's lap. "The closer we get, the clearer the impression becomes. There are others here. One is concerned with escape, and the others with capture."

"Yet I sense no life at all," Illia injected. "That should not be possible."

"Sensors have been fooled before," Pacha countered. "Even the Moth are not perfect."

"Agreed. I will continue to monitor this situation. Maybe as we get closer, something will become detectable."

"Okay." Charlie nodded. "We need to know when to stop this thing, right?"

"I will know when we are close," Ragal told him. "Pacha, too, I suspect."

"And us," Frit put in. "Pip and I can feel this now, too."

"Even me," Keerby said. "And sensing isn't my best skill, either."

"Someone is in trouble," Pip agreed. "Bad guys are after him. We'll help, if we can. "

Charlie smiled. "You'll just walk up and knock them down?"

Both elves laughed. "We don't know who the bad guys are yet, Charlie," Pip said.

"But we will," Frit added, looking determined. "What would Grandpa Max do now?"

Charlie smiled at that question, but didn't say a word. They had managed to make it this far without Max's wonderful powers to bolster them, and he was seeing now that it was good for them, in a way. Charlie, at least, was feeling the stretch of his wings, definitely.

"Hey, fellas," Adrian said, from the row ahead of them. "Maybe you should see this."

They all got to their feet, and crowded together in front of the transparent nose. The band of road they had been traveling on, scarcely wider than their own vehicle, seemed to be merging with something larger. It was a much wider band of glowing roadway, crowding up to theirs, forming a great expanse of glowing white that stretched towards the horizon. They merged onto the larger roadway, and even as they watched, another great train car caught up to them and passed them on the left.

"Whoa," Ricky breathed, his eyes wide. "Check that out."

A fork flashed by on their right, another narrower, single travel roadway, that branched off and then was gone. Ahead of them, the train car that had passed them drifted to the left and began to slow. They caught it again just as it turned off onto another fork, heading away from the main road.

"Just like the interstate back home," Adrian said, shaking his head. "A super interstate!"

It did seem to be that way. Other cars caught up to them and slowly drifted past, keeping to the center of the wide road, and disappeared ahead of them. The separation seemed uniform, and that led Charlie to a question. "Are we going slower than these others for a reason, Illia?"

"Yes. I have no idea where we will need to stop, and slowing one of these vehicles takes a little time. There is no turning around on this route. If we miss our exit, we will need to find a way back. I need some seconds before arriving at a turnoff to make the transition safely."

Charlie turned to Ragal, who looked apologetic. "I don't know where we have to go yet, Charlie."

"That's okay." He turned to Pacha. "You have anything yet?"

"No. Just that we are going in the right direction."

Charlie nodded. "Then we're doing the best that we can."

"We're trying!" Frit said.

"This is tough!" Pip added. "Never felt anything like this!"

"I agree with that assessment," Pacha said, canting his head to one side. "Whatever is present on this world with us, it is not something I have encountered before."

Charlie gave a little shrug, not sure how to answer that. "That could be bad...or it could be good."

The koala gave out a short laugh. "I tend to agree with you, Charlie."

Charlie opened his mouth to say something else, but was interrupted. A short, pleasant tone played in the air, sounding like a cross between a bird chirping and a cricket scratching. It seemed to come from nowhere in particular, yet everywhere at once.

"Maybe dinner is served," Ricky said, grinning.

"I could eat," Adrian agreed. He turned his head and took a short draw off his nutrient straw.

Ricky immediately sighed. "Young man, are you trying to spoil your dinner?"

Charlie rolled his eyes at that, and turned to Pacha. "Any idea what that was about?"

The Kift closed his eyes, and turned his head slowly side to side. "No...wait. There is another vehicle approaching from behind, gaining ground on us quite quickly. It is smaller, not like our own car."

"I've got it," Illia said. "It is directing queries at us, which we are unable to answer. I am still working on the encryption involved. But my guess is that it is a maintenance vehicle, come to check on why we are moving so slowly compared to other traffic, and outside the designated travel zone."

Charlie frowned. "That's not good. What happens if we don't answer their call?"

"I don't know. But --"

Without any sort of fanfare, the steady hum of the drive of their vehicle cut off, and they staggered forward as the car immediately slowed. They heard a distant whine, as if high-speed equipment was quickly winding down, and then there was a brief moment of almost quiet, before the entire thing reversed. The whine came back and increased, and the car surged forward again.

"They cut our power,"Illia said. "I have overridden their command locally, and we are under power once more."

Another tone played in the cabin, this one more insistent than the first.

"I think they want us to stop," Mike said, moving over to the side of the car so that he could look out the window. "They must think this car is out of whack. There they are!"

The whole group joined him to peer outward. Another vehicle had come up alongside them, also cylindrical, but much smaller. It's exterior was also smooth, though there were raised blisters here and there that seemed loaded with some sort of equipment. Lights atop the vehicle glowed green and orange, in a pattern that was hard to miss.

"Shee-it," Ricky said, shaking his head. "That doesn't look like a tow truck. That looks like the cops!"

Several ports opened in the side of the other vehicle, and the slim muzzles of obvious weapons popped forth. An even more strident tone sounded within the cabin then, what could only be a clear demand of some sort. The other vehicle drifted closer, the muzzles of the weapons rising as it did so.

"It's going to shoot!" Bobby said, ducking down.

But that's not what happened. The other vehicle suddenly hopped a few times, and then sailed into the air, rising above even their own vehicle, before suddenly crashing back down to the roadway at an angle to its former direction of travel. Its rollers grabbed immediately, and the vehicle jumped away from them, fighting its new lateral motion. The car came up on the outer rollers, teetered precariously, and then flipped onto its side at over three hundred miles per hour, and careened across the roadway and into a building. And then they were past, and didn't see what happened next.

Charlie immediately turned to Pacha. "You did that!"

"Of course. They were about to use an electromagnetic dampener on us. It would have paralyzed the drive and we would have had no choice but to stop. That was a machine, Charlie. There were no lifeforms aboard. We should have realized that our failure to stay within normal road parameters would draw the attention of road security."

Frit laughed. "You took away their gravity."

Pip nodded. "As fast as he was going, the wind picked him right up. Then you gave him his gravity back, and bam!"

Pacha gave a little wince. "It somehow sounds much more brutal when said that way."

Mike smiled sympathetically, and patted the koala's helmet. "You did what you had to do, Pach. Good job."

Charlie nodded. "Better them than us. What would have happened if they had stopped us?"

"I don't know. But the dampener would have paralyzed this vehicle, ending its use for us. I could not allow that to happen."

"I am detecting another vehicle, larger than the first, overtaking us from behind," Illia said. "I don't think this is over." The shipmind made a small noise that sounded disgusted. "I should have realized that removing this car from the machine manifest would have left an inconsistency somewhere. I have located routing and traffic records that still list this vehicle, and which now do not match with the location and movement timetable. I'm sure that security protocols have been activated somewhere. I'm sorry, but I think I goofed."

Charlie had to smile at that. "It happens to the best of us, Illia. Anything you can tell me about the vehicle coming after us?"

"Its level of shielding is extreme, and its armament seems considerable. No electromagnetic dampeners here. I am detecting directed energy weapons and point-to-point missile launchers. I suspect we are dealing with a military vehicle of some sort now."

Charlie scratched his chin. "Is it possible they know we're aboard?"

"The machines here would have a variety of scanners, and we have made no move to shield our presence here. I would have to say the local mind is aware of us."

"Maybe it thinks we're stealing this train thing," Kippy said. "That's not good."

Another tone played in the cabin, and there was no mistaking the demand there now. Stop, or we'll shoot!

Mike patted Pacha's head. "Can you make that machine fly too?"

The Kift closed his eyes a moment. "Yes. But it will not have the same effect. This new machine is equipped with gravity controls of its own. It is capable of flying without my help."

Mike looked unfazed. "Maybe squish it down some? Make it too heavy to move?"

"No. I cannot stop this one with gravity. I can shield us from the missiles, and from some of the effects of the energy weapons, but not all of it."

Mike frowned. "Maybe you should put up a shield, then."

"I already have."

"I can see it coming," Adrian said, from the window. "It looks like it means business!"

Charlie went to stand beside the other boy and put the side of his face to the transparency so that he could look back behind them. Another large vehicle was coming up on them. This one left no doubt about its purpose. It was hung with launchers of all kinds, and the muzzles of guns seemed to project from every surface not taken up by launchers. It nearly made him laugh, actually, because it seemed so overdone. But there was nothing funny here. That this was the local equivalent of a tank seemed obvious.

"Oh, this doesn't look good," Charlie said. "This thing is armed to the teeth!" Here were two more things about the ancient Athonara to be filed away for future reference: they were a suspicious lot, not tolerant of trespassers; and, they had the means to deal with them when they showed.

Ragal suddenly stood up from his seat. "We need to go to the right, Illia."

"According to the roadway data stream, the next exit is three minutes away at our current speed."

The alien closed his eyes a moment, and then shook his head. "We will be past where we need to go by then. We must turn now!"

Charlie moved away from the window. "Illia, is this vehicle capable of driving on other surfaces than this road?"

"I would say it could, if we reduce the speed to something more reasonable."

"Brace yourselves," Pacha interjected.

There was a pair of deep, loud booming sounds to their rear, and the entire vehicle vibrated. Charlie shifted his feet quickly to keep his balance, and then moved closer to Mike. "What was that?"

"Missiles," Pacha returned. "I was able to direct most of the effects away from us."

Charlie braced for another impact, but nothing happened.

"What happened? They stopped shooting?"

"Probably baffled by my shield," Pacha said. "The Athonara were not power users, and it is not known if they were even aware of their existence. If not, their machines would not be either. To the pursuing car, their missiles detonated, and simply did not produce the expected damage. It will be a puzzle to the mind running it."

"I doubt that will stop 'em," Mike offered.

As if in answer to that, the vehicle shook again, and a different, yet still obviously frantic tone played in the cabin.

"They took out two of the rear rollers on that side with an energy burst," Pacha said.

Again the vehicle shook, and swerved slightly on the road.

"I'm slowing down," Illia informed them. "The missing rollers are destabilizing us."

"If they just keep shooting out the rollers, eventually we'll have to stop," Bobby said. "Is there any way we can shoot back at them?"

"This vehicle is not equipped with any kind of weapons. I'm sorry."

Charlie was starting to feel desperate. "Illia, which is heavier, us or that other car?"

"This vehicle is fully loaded with cargo, and twice the size of the attacking vehicle. Our mass is considerably more."

"Good. Can we ram them?"

"I would not suggest it at this speed."

Charlle blew out an exasperated breath. "Can we slow down and ram them?"

"Yes. But the act will not be without danger."

"More danger than being shot at?"

"Perhaps not. Slowing vehicle."

There was another series of rumbles behind them, and the big car shook, and Pacha informed them that he had deflected more missiles. Kippy came over and stood close, and Charlie put an arm around him.

The three elves suddenly crowded around Charlie and Kip. "If we ram 'em, we can add to that force," Frit said. "We'll knock 'em over."

"You sure?"

All three of them smiled. "It'll be fun!" Pip said. "Bumper cars!"

"We have slowed to two hundred kilometers per hour," Illia said. "The other vehicle is pacing alongside us. It's now or never."

"Then do it!" Charlie said.

"I would suggest that all of you hit the deck, then."

Everyone dropped with a speed that was almost funny, except for the three elves, who ran to the side window. "Go for it!" Frit called.

Charlie felt the big car suddenly swerve, and then a fierce impact. It was a hard knock, to be expected from several hundred tons of metal striking something at least half its own weight. The car shuddered, and there were tearing sounds on the outside, and then an incredible noise as something dealt their own car a sharp return blow.

"Got 'em!" Frit called from the window.

"Blooie!" Pip yelled, his excitement obvious.

"I hope we don't have to pay for that," Keerby said, more soberly. "That would be a whole lot of allowance!"

"What happened?" Charlie asked, rising and drawing Kip up with him.

Frit looked satisfied with himself. "They rolled over."

"Turned sideways and hit us before they flipped off the road," Pip added. "Something exploded."

Their own car shuddered and swerved, and Charlie looked out the front window just in time to see them turn off the road and pass between two buildings. The opening looked too small for the huge transport, and there was another tearing, grinding sound from outside, and the car shuddered horribly. But then they were through, and heading out into the darkness, away from the lights. They slowed even more, and the car bounced as it hit some uneven terrain.

"Where are we going?" he called to Illia.

"Ragal said we must turn right, so I have turned right."

"We need to backtrack somewhat," the alien said, his eyes closed. "And...go some miles out to the south. If you can turn several degrees right and keep a straight line, that will suffice."

A loud thumping noise began behind them, on the side where all the road action had just taken place. The car swerved, and then straightened again.

"The missing rollers," Illia supplied, before Charlie could even ask. "The one in front of the two missing rollers is damaged, too. I don't know how far we can go in this condition."

Ragal looked over at Charlie. "The closer, the better."

"I agree. Illia, just get us as far as you can, okay?"

Ricky frowned, and jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. "That was a pretty lame attack. I'm surprised they didn't just open up on us."

"They were thrown off by our defenses, undoubtedly," Pacha said. "This was a machine after us, remember. After witnessing our defense, it seemed to be testing the limits of its abilities. After the missiles failed to penetrate they tried the directed energy weapons, and were successful in taking out some of the rollers. Then they tried the missiles again, elsewhere. I think, had we not dealt with them first, they would have intensified their assault with the energy projectors as their next step in halting us."

Ricky seemed to agree with that. "I'll bet the mind back at machine central wasn't happy with what happened. Probably have the whole road security force out after us next. I hope we can get where we're supposed to be going first!"

It soon became apparent that by 'some miles', Ragal meant quite a few. After another half hour of travel at their much reduced speed, they still had not reached their destination.

"Because it's moving," Pacha decided, aloud. "Away from us."

The three elves nodded. "It knows we're coming," Pip said.

"What is 'it'?" Charlie asked, getting a little frustrated now. "What are we chasing?"

Pacha looked at him, and then gave out a small sigh. "I still don't know."

Ragal shook his head. "I think it is aware of us, Charlie, just as Pip said. It seems unwilling to offer us a chance to meet."

"So we just keep chasing it?" Charlie returned. Another strange sound occurred to their rear, and the car began to shimmy side to side.

"We've just shed a third roller," Illia said. "I'm afraid we will need to stop."

Charlie sighed. "Do it."

They slowed, and finally came to a jarring halt.

Ricky came over, Adrian in tow. "I'm kind of surprised they're not still chasing us, Charlie. You'd think after we trashed two of their guys, the air force would be out, or something."

"Or the army," Adrian agreed. "These guys gave up too soon for some reason."

"We have passed into another jurisdiction," Illia said. "An area supervised by a different mind. Murcha and Onglet have prevented the mind in the previous area from informing the network of our actions. So we can basically start over again here, I hope."

"It was the least we could do," Murcha said over the com. "We are making good headway on solving the barrier encryption, Charlie. I think we'll have it much sooner than originally expected, and be able to bring the ship down to aid you."

That was good to hear! Charlie smiled. "How long, do you think?"

"About a week," Murcha returned. "That's much better than the original projection of a month, don't you think?"

Charlie simply gaped, and then he frowned, and opened his mouth...

Kippy quickly put a hand on his chest and smiled at him, and shook his head. "That's wonderful, Murcha!" Kip called. "Keep up the good work!"

Charlie closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and forced a smile. "Yes, that's good news. Thank you."

"You're welcome," the shipmind said, sounding pleased.

Charlie opened his eyes, and Kippy was still smiling at him. Charlie mouthed a 'thank you', to which his boyfriend's smile simply widened. "All part of the service."

There was no option but to smile at that, and some of the tension Charlie was feeling ebbed away. Once again he chided himself for worrying too much, and vowed to relax now, come what may. He had to keep reminding himself that he was part of a group that worked very well together, and even though the others treated him like the leader at times, it was a team effort that was going to win the day.

"I guess we should go on outside, huh?" he said, by way of moving on from the moment.

Again they took turns riding down the platform to the ground. As soon as they were clustered there, Illia closed up the big car and said she was going back to scanning their surroundings. Charlie stared up at the vehicle, the exterior of which was lit by running lights and small spots, and not at all hard to see in the darkness. He wanted to see the damage to their vehicle caused by the Athonara road tank, and led the others in a quick hike around the length of the stopped vehicle, to the darker rear. They circled around, and then stopped. A few lights were still working, enough to see what had happened.

"Holy crap!" Ricky got out first, saying it for everyone.

Charlie simply stared at the damage, unable to believe the extent of it. The two last rollers on that side were simply gone, leaving mammoth empty mounts hanging in the air. The third roller was a carcass, with just a few large chunks still clinging to the mount. Obviously, they had been solid, not at all like tires back home.

But it was the damage to the cylindrical body that was most impressive. It was ripped open nearly its entire length, and shipping cases of all sizes hung out through the rents, themselves in varying states of destruction. Some lights were still working inside, and they highlighted the incredible damage. The rear of the vehicle was entirely gone, and they could see the remains of compartments and decks inside, simply full of trash now that the cargo within had been destroyed.

Mike emitted a small, amazed laugh, checking out the remaining rollers. "Big set of boots on this baby! But that tank sure turned our road train into a tip truck!"

"Yeah," Bobby said, shaking his head. "They sure took a pretty good piece out of us."

Mike nodded, and put a protective arm around his boyfriend. "Good thing this beast is so huge, or someone mighta got hurt."

Bobby smiled at that, but just nodded.

"Um...I think I am the cause of some of that damage," Illia said. "When I turned off the road, the gap between the buildings there really was not quite wide enough to accept us."

Charlie laughed at that. "I think we kind of noticed that, Illia. But you got the job done, and everyone is safe, so why complain about a few small dents in the fenders?"

Kippy let out a laugh, and reached over and squeezed Charlie's wrist, grinning. Charlie just grinned back.

"That's the way I saw it, too," the shipmind said, sounding satisfied. "Considering that I have never driven a land vehicle before, I think we managed well."

Charlie turned to Ragal, who had been standing by patiently, watching them. "Sorry. Which way?"

The tall alien turned and pointed off into the darkness. "There."

"Yes," Pacha said. "Our quarry seems to have gone to ground. The pursuers are nearby, too. Caution is in order."

Charlie looked in the direction Ragal had indicated. There were lights off in the distance, but it was pitch dark close at hand. "I don't know how we'll do this without lights."

To his amazement, the darkness before his eyes parted, and a vivid landscape came into being. There were a few startled exclamations from the others, leading him to believe that they were seeing the same thing he was. Charlie stared about, noting the relatively flat lay of the land, but that it seemed to rise off to their right into a series of hills. Nothing grew anywhere he looked, nothing to fall over, nothing to avoid. Just uneven ground, here and there, but now plainly visible.

But it was only the ground that was visible. That, and things like the far off structures lining the horizon. The sky was still utterly dark, a spooky looking black canopy hanging over the world, unrelieved in its complete lack of light by even a single star.

"Ooh, creepy," Kippy breathed, giving audible life to Charlie's own opinion.

"I have activated the imaging function of your helmets," Murcha said over the com link. "After this mission, you really need to sit down and read the manual."

"I will," Charlie said, laughing. "Believe me, I'll do that."

Charlie gave one last look at their former vehicle. The damage was even worse in the clarity of the imager. He shook his head, an old joke his dad had once told him about student drivers coming and going in the back of his mind in a brief second. It made him frown, instead of being funny. Illia's performance had probably saved all of them from injury, or maybe even capture. And now, to leave the evidence of their misdeeds so prominently lit out here in the middle of nowhere seemed incautious. "Um, Illia? Can you turn off the car's lights? It's really very visible out here in the dark."

The lights immediately went out.

They started off, walking two-abreast, placing their feet carefully as they became accustomed to the view through their helmets. Colors were there, very muted, but the depth perception was excellent, and Charlie found he had no trouble at all in walking through the pitch dark just as if it was noon outside his own house back on Earth. Again he was impressed with the technology. The Moth were no slouches in anything, it seemed.

Ahead of them, an uncertain mass on the horizon began to differentiate into a group of cylindrical buildings with tapering peaks, standing on end like bowling pins waiting for the ball to strike. There was easily a hundred of them, maybe more, grouped here and there with gaps between the groups, but all of them obviously part of the same complex.

"What do you make of that?" Adrian asked, pointing. The group stopped to look over the land ahead.

"They look like liquid storage of some kind," Kontus offered, peering ahead through his helmet. He pointed off to their left. "If I am not mistaken, that odd looking shadow along the horizon is a pipeline of some sort, running there to that large group of square buildings."

"I agree," Ragal put in. As the tallest member of their group, he certainly had the best view. "But it is the storage facility we must go to, I sense."

"That is also my opinion," Pacha added.

The three elves, standing together and staring at the storage tanks, all nodded.

"That's where it is," Frit stated.

"No doubt about it," Pip agreed.

Keerby frowned, and looked over at Charlie. "Yes. There is something there."

Charlie noted the puzzled look on the elf's face. "Something else you feel?"

Keerby nodded. "There is something weird there. I'm sensing impending non-specific moment in time. A discontinuity."

Kippy made a face, and turned a questioning look on the elf. "What the heck does that mean?"

Keerby looked thoughtful. "Time is all relative, Kippy. It really only exists right now, as the present. We feel it passing as we move into the newest now, and because we remember these nows passing, we have a sense of the past. But its not really there anymore."

Charlie frowned at that. "If there is nothing but a now everywhere in the universe, how does the Cooee have no time? And how do you manipulate stuff so that we can be out here a week while only a few minutes pass by at home?"

The elf laughed. "I know it's hard to get. But just because we have a now here, it doesn't mean it's the same now back at home. There's what's called frames of reference, and they're attached to each and every spot, everywhere in the whole universe, and move with them. The Cooee is not our universe at all. It has one large frame that doesn't change in respect to our universe, and so time like we know it doesn't pass there. It's always the same now in the Cooee. But there's places even in there where things have happened wrong and the frame is sort of bent or twisted, and the nows jump ahead or fall behind the nows in our universe. Like I said before, it may even be caused by people like me, manipulating time frames out here. That's what happened to Bobby, and why he lost time while he was there."

"He lost time?" Mike asked. "I thought he gained it, by coming back sixty years later."

"Nope. He actually lost time in his frame, because it was slower than the one he came from. When he got back to here, he'd lost those sixty years, not gained them. If he had experienced them normally, he'd be an old man now."

Mike looked briefly stricken at the idea, and turned and smiled at his boyfriend. "I'm glad that didn't happen."

"Me, too," Bobby said, returning the smile. Kippy sighed at the sight of it, and smiled wistfully at Charlie, who just smiled and nodded at his boyfriend's silent praise of romance.

"So what about what you do back home?" Ricky asked. "How can we be here a week and only a little time passes there?"

"I just fix it so that our frame slides past the one at home, and is always falling behind it, until I tell it not to. When we get back home, I'll make it stop." The elf laughed. "Uncle Max is really good at it, too. It kind of runs in our family."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "You're related to Max?"

"Sure. There's actually a couple of greats before the uncle, but my dad is the great, great a few times grandson of Max's brother, Jakos."

"I don't see how that can happen," Charlie said, frowning. "I mean the time frame thing, not that you're related to Max. How does time even out again, if you let the frames slide past each other? What about the energy involved? Wouldn't that kind of manipulation be a violation of the law of conservation of energy, or something?"

Keerby looked delighted. "That's very good, Charlie. Manipulating time frames creates problems with space. It causes it to be stretched in one place, where it isn't in another. Or it might be compressed instead. If the universe was unmoving, it would create problems with the balances of energy between frames. But the universe is expanding, and space is always inflating. So if you stretch it in time in one place, or compress it, there is room for it to react somewhere else in the opposite way. Energy flows between the two affected areas, and balances out."

"We are getting a little far afield here," Pacha reminded, looking off towards the storage tanks.

There were some smiles at that, and Charlie pointed a finger at Keerby to regain his attention. "And this non-specific moment thing?"

Keerby nodded. "We've split up this sense of time moving into seconds and minutes and things, to make life easier for us. Every second is accounted for, and every part of every second, down to the smallest little bit. But time doesn't know that. It's all one as it passes, it's all the right now. The only differences in perceived time to us living things are places in our universe where the frames slide past each other for some reason. That can happen naturally due to speed or gravity, or because some power user made it happen. And the future is not set at all, even though we also think of it with the same words that we see the past. We can say, 'I was there an hour ago', or we can say, 'I'll be there in an hour,' and we see them the same way, as a specific moment in time. But that past moment is an expired now, and the future moment doesn't really exist until we actually arrive at it as now."

Ricky gave out a low whistle. Adrian smiled. "You get that?" he asked his boyfriend.

"Told ya he was a prodigy," Pip said, exchanging a laughing glance with Frit.

"Got a good grip on reality, that boy," Frit agreed.

"And the non-specific part you mentioned?" Charlie reminded.

Keerby nodded. "Sometime soon, we're going to get to a now that may or may not actually exist. I take it to mean that at that...I can't say moment, because it may not be one...but at that now, something will or will not happen, that will affect the flow of nows that comes after."

Pacha turned in Mike's arm to stare at the elf. "Are you saying that this non-specific moment will be like a pivot in time, where the flow can go in one of two directions?"

"Yeah, that's it. But not backwards or forwards. Sideways. Like a branch. What occurs at that pivot will affect the future of the entire universe. Our reality will go one way, or another."

Kontus grunted. "It sounds dire. Does this mean that some action of ours will make the difference?"

"I don't know. But I'd have to say that some action of somebody's will."

Pacha's muzzle crinkled in an almost frown. "We already know about branching realities. Every single event has multiple conclusions, and for each conclusion a new, branching reality is formed. But the number of conclusions is basically infinite, leading to an infinite number of branch realities."

Adrian raised a hand at the koala to get his attention. "Like the reality you sent the Arpathant to, where there was no life but them? That's a branch reality?"

"Yes. I think that one was an extreme case, however. Something --" the Kift paused, and laughed --"momentous occurred, early in the development of that universe, that precluded the rise of intelligent life. In our galaxy there, at least."

"That's what this will be like," Keerby said, nodding. "Branch conclusions are so numerous in the daily life of the universe that it sheds new realities without ever affecting the flow of time. But every so often, there is an event that is so pivotal that it can conclude only one way or another, with no varying branches. Light or dark, right or wrong, this or that, and no other conclusion. I think this is where we are heading here. We will have the main stream of time, and a single branch reality that may become the new main stream, if allowed to happen."

Pacha looked unsettled. "This is quite serious."

"I'm glad there's no pressure, though," Ricky said amiably. "I'd be worried if there was."

Adrian smiled and leaned up against him. "Let's just do our best."

"I kind of agree with that," Charlie said. "We can only do what we are supposed to do."

"But we don't know what that is yet," Ragal said softly.

Charlie turned to him. "You being here must be a factor in it. Something you do here today must make some difference."

"Maybe not just him," Keerby countered. "It could be something that Ragal does in conjunction with things every one of the rest of us does, that make the difference. It may be the effect of all of us, together, that matters."

"So each one of us might have a part to play, that adds up to a whole," Kippy finished. "And we have no idea what it is we are to do."

No one said anything for a moment.

"Maybe you shouldn't have told them," Pip decided, patting Keerby on the shoulder.

But the other elf shook his head. "I had to. It's my nature to say something about anything that may affect all of us. I would have had to tell myself not to do it. You know, make a conscious decision? If I had not acted normal, I might have created the very instant where the universe went the wrong way."

"Wow," Bobby said, shaking his head. "So what do we do?"

Mike shrugged. "Hard to say."

Kippy smiled at Keerby. "How old did you say you were?'

The elf looked nonplussed, but then smiled. "I'm seventeen, actually."

Kippy sighed. "I'll bet you're a real time beast by the time you're twenty-one."

Charlie laughed along with the others, while Keerby blushed. But that the elf was enjoying himself was obvious. Quiet by nature, he was finally coming into his element at this stage of the operation.

Charlie rubbed his chin. "Damn. You know...this is just too complicated for us to think about right now. My inclination is not to worry about all the hard stuff, and just do what we feel is right."

Kontus smiled at that. "It is a plan that has seemed to work fairly well up until now."

Pacha considered the idea, and then inclined his head slightly. "I agree. A very sensible course, Charlie."

"Yeah. I mean, if that's why we're here, just to do what we do, than that's what needs to be done." He motioned towards the distant structures. "So let's keep walking."

They started off again, spreading out a little, watching the storage tanks as they grew larger.

Kippy clasped Charlie's hand as they walked, squeezing his fingers reassuringly. Charlie smiled at that. Kippy believed in a universe of light, and would never allow the shadows that actually existed there to deter him. Charlie had been doing a lot of thinking of late, and coming to see the universe as a much more dangerous place than his boyfriend ever would have liked to admit. Kippy believed in wonders, and magic, and that if you treated someone decently, it would come back to you.

Charlie was feeling more cynical about things since he had caused the deaths of the Beltracians back at their arsenal world, and even though it had been a necessary thing to the peace of the galaxy, it was a price he still could not get over having to pay. What had started as a great adventure for him and his friends had been shown to have real consequences underneath. Ricky and Adrian, and especially Kippy, still saw it all as a grand adventure, one that would always work out in the end for them. Kippy had so much faith in his friends, humans, elf, and alien, that he thought they could overcome all odds.

What Charlie had come to fear was the idea that a situation would arise that they could not handle, one that might cost him any one of - or even all of - his friends. Or even his own life, the idea of which did not frighten him as much as losing one of the others. That he could not control this worry bothered him more than the worry itself. His intellect told him that their chances on each adventure were just as good as the odds they had enjoyed on the adventures before, and his heart told him that they would prevail. But his fears...his fears were something else totally. In fact, he was starting to worry that his fears might incapacitate him at the wrong moment, and that he might, himself, inadvertently cause the very disaster that frightened him so much.

The doubt was wearing him down, adding to his worries that he might take a misstep, might fail when the others needed him the most...

"Stop that," Kippy said softly.

Charlie blinked, and looked over at the other boy. "Huh?"

"You heard me." Kippy's eyes sought out his, and again he squeezed Charlie's hand. "Stop that kind of thinking, right now."

Charlie couldn't help smiling. "Know me so well, do you?"

"Yes." Kippy squeezed his hand again. "Stop worrying."

Charlie knew their conversation wasn't private, but that seemed not to matter just now. "I can't help it. Like Keerby said, it's part of my nature."

"I know, and that's why I'm saying something." Kippy sighed. "I have a good feeling about all this, Charlie, not a bad one. What we're doing is right and necessary. You know I'd tell you if my skwish was warning me. But all it's saying is, 'you're doing the right thing'. Understand?"

"Yes." Charlie wanted to believe. Kippy's skwish had not steered them wrong yet. But it was the nature of worry that it could not be easily ignored, nor kicked away and told never to return. It grew like a weed, seeded by doubt, nourished by what ifs and maybes, until it grew up over the front door of his mind and hindered his step each time he stepped outside to enjoy the view. Disregarding it now would be hard.

Kippy sighed again. "Whatever happens, it will happen to us together, Charlie. All of us. That's what I feel."

Charlie heard Adrian make a soft sound, as if he was clearing his throat. "It's what I feel, too."

"Listen up, Charlie," Ricky said quietly. "You're not by yourself here."

Charlie turned his head to look at the other boy. Ricky and Adrian were walking along, hand in hand, just as Charlie and Kippy were. His gaze moved on, and Mike and Bobby were there, hand-in-hand, smiling at him. Pacha, in the crook of Mike's other arm, seemed also to be sending positive thoughts his way. And Frit and Pip, also holding hands, with Keerby virtually rubbing shoulders with Frit as they walked along. Together.

Kontus moved with easy grace, looking certain that they would handle whatever might come. And Ragal...the alien wore a smile, and for the first time Charlie understood that it was not just a normal feature of the alien's face, but a true reflection of what Ragal was feeling inside. The man had a positive view, one that Charlie could see now was not easily disturbed. Ragal trusted in some part of the universe not to sell him short.

The idea that all of them might be feeling some of the same things that he did - the same worries, the same fears - struck him like a blow then.

"Are you worried?" he asked Ricky, unable not to.

"Sure. I told you before I was. I always worry when we're doing this stuff. But I'm not letting it take the fun away from me. There's too much great stuff to see out here, for me to spend all my time looking inside for things to worry about."

Charlie smiled at that, and then gave a soft laugh. "What a great way to put it." He grinned across at him. "Thanks."

Ricky smiled. "Hey, it's what friends are for."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah."

Kippy squeezed his hand again, and when Charlie returned his gaze to his boyfriend, he saw the twinkle of affection in Kippy's eyes. "Not so hard, was it?"

"A conspiracy," Charlie returned, feigning disgust. "To deprive me of all my hard won demons."

The others laughed at the joke, but Charlie felt immeasurably better somehow for it, and determined to hold onto the positive feelings. He let his eyes go back to their destination, and examined the storage tanks again now that they were closer and larger. Why there?

"Is there something about that place, you think, that has drawn our friends there?"

"I think not," Pacha said, almost as if he had been expecting the question. "I think it is random, and only where the pursued one wound up. The pursuers are close, and now us. It may have felt trapped."

"But we're not after it," Adrian pointed out.

"It may not know that," Ragal spoke then. "I feel it senses us, and knows we are close."

Charlie slowed, and then stopped. "Should we just walk up on it, then?"

The others also stopped, and Ragal came closer to Charlie. "It is distressed, Charlie. Fearful. I think we should hurry, to get there before the pursuers."

Charlie didn't waste a moment. He stepped into a trot, and Kippy fell right in beside him. The others joined them, and the entire group crossed the remaining ground to the first storage tanks at a swift pace, yet remarkably quietly, the amazing soles of their suit feet seeming to avoid a solid and noisy impact with the ground.

Charlie and Kippy arrived at the side of the first tank and stopped. Charlie turned, to find Ragal right behind him. "Which way?" Charlie asked.

"Around this tank, and in between, I think," Ragal said quietly.

Charlie nodded, and began circling the big tank, the others following. They entered the area between the first row of tanks and the row behind, and Charlie could see between the next row that there were even more rows beyond. The ground was smooth here but unfinished, looking like ancient dirt simply pounded into submission by time. Charlie kept on, until he had completely circled the tank to the area beyond.

There he stopped.

The great walls of the tanks towered all around them, and they were in what seemed a narrow canyon between, somehow darker than the lands outside. Yet their imagers continued to show the ground at their feet quite plainly, with only the airspace between the tanks seeming uncertainly dimmed. Charlie looked around carefully, trying to figure out what was amiss; and then he had it: the artificial canyon, instead of being lit all the way to the horizon, seemed to fade into darkness only two tanks beyond. Where there should have been a line of tanks going onward, there was only darkness.

"That doesn't look right," he said then.

"The imagers are working correctly," Murcha said over the link. The two Moth shipminds had been monitoring their progress, even while mostly focused on the puzzle of solving the barrier encryption. "I have tapped into your journal recording, Charlie, and the image looks fine."

Charlie shook his head. "It gets dark only two tanks beyond."

"Really? I can see all the way to the end of the row, and even beyond."

"Well, I can't," Mike said, sounding annoyed. "Something isn't right here."

"I can't see the end, either," Bobby confirmed. "It's like there's a dark fog down there, or something."

"It's not real," Frit said then. "Something's fooling our eyes."

"Big time!" Pip agreed. He turned to look at his boyfriend. "Feel that? Down low in the band? Never felt anything like that before!"

"There is another power user here," Pacha said, quietly. "A most unusual one, too."

"This is the one we seek," Ragal confirmed. "This is why I am here, I think."

"I cannot detect anything ahead of us," Illia said. "There is nothing there."

"Nor can I," Murcha agreed. "But my scans indicate an unusual power signature, closing on your position. I suggest a retreat, or at least a consolidation, of your group, until we can..."

The shipmind's voice trailed off amidst a burst of static on the com, and was silent.

"Murcha?" Charlie asked.

There was no response.

"What happened, Illia?" Mike asked, looking back over his shoulder.

Again, there was no response.

Pacha looked around at them. "Can everyone hear my voice?"

There was a chorus of yesses and nods, and the Kift looked puzzled. "Odd that we could be cut off from Murcha. The com communicates instantaneously and directly through a portion of the Cooee. No local force should be able to interfere with it. Certainly not with Illia, who is literally a foot away from me."

"Well, somebody did," Mike said, sounding quite unhappy about it. "And I don't like being cut off from my girl."

Bobby gave out a short laugh at that, and Mike turned and grinned at him. "You know what I mean."

Ricky suddenly waved a hand for silence. In the darkness before them, something moved. Kippy gasped, and Charlie literally felt the hair on the back of his head stand up.

"Crap," Ricky breathed, drawing his vibratory dagger.

For a second it was there, huge, it's outline vague, just enough to reveal an utterly alien and frightening apparition; and then it receded back into the dark mist.

Charlie stared, rooted to the spot, unable now to even describe what he had seen. Yet just the memory of it made him want to run and hide. But something kept him from doing just that - something that also seemed to be keeping the others there around him.

Kippy reached for Charlie's hand again and clasped it tightly. "We're okay," he said softly, even though their voices could only go out by com, and not carry otherwise beyond the helmets. "My skwish is saying we are okay."

Ricky gave a soft laugh. "Let your skwish come out and see that thing, and then see what it says!"

There was some soft, yet nervous laughter at that.

"We're good," Adrian reinforced Kippy's words, but took hold of Ricky's free hand a little worriedly. "Don't start swinging that thing recklessly, okay?"

Ricky laughed. "Who, me?"

"Yes. You."

Ricky immediately sobered. "I won't. I promise."

"Odd," Pacha said. "The mass of the life form I sense does not comply with the size of what I just saw."

"Just tell me it's not really bigger," Mike said, through a tight smile.

"No. Much smaller. Something is not right here."

"Yeah," Frit said. "Somebody's playing games."

"Trick or treat games," Pip agreed.

Keerby looked over at Charlie. "We are close to the possible discontinuity in time."

Charlie almost laughed, hearing that on top of everything else. "Everybody, watch your step," was all he could think of to say.

Again in the darkness ahead, something moved. And then the darkness suddenly advanced upon them, creeping forward with a purposeful, evil life of its own, swallowing the great tanks before them. Charlie heard several soft exclamations over the com, and then Ragal's voice, sounding unusually commanding: "Do not run!"

The darkness reached them, paused just before them. Something large reached out of the darkness at them, a giant, clawed hand, armored and studded like a mace, that swept over their heads and impacted one of the tanks with a terrible, metallic clang. Charlie felt Kippy pull at his arm, but the boy was not trying to run. He was simply pulling away from the tank, as if in fear that it might burst under the impact.

A shriek came from the darkness, an immense, angry, terrifying shriek. Charlie remembered the wristlet weapon he wore now and raised his hand in front of him, realizing then that he didn't even know how to shoot the thing. He remembered that Murcha had said it was a smart weapon, with its own tiny intelligence within, and that it would know how to react to any threatening situation.

And yet, the weapon did not fire.

"Stay calm, everyone," Ragal said, his voice again holding the quality of an order. Charlie found the words oddly reassuring, and took a deep breath and lowered his arm a bit.

Some awful noises came to them then, as if whatever was inside the darkness ahead of them was simply destroying the tanks around it. It was an incredible sound, deafening, and Charlie was suddenly stunned to realize something: he was hearing the sounds as if he wore no helmet at all. Outside sounds could be heard, picked up and transmitted to a sound reproducer inside the helmet; but up to that point the things they had heard had been subject to filtering. Yet now, his ears rang with the level of noise, something that should have been impossible inside the noise-limiting confines of the Moth space helmet.

"Something's wrong!" he yelled then. "The noise is too loud!"

Several of the others gaped at him, but then he began to see comprehension on their faces.

Ragal was beside Charlie then, motioning that they should go forward. "Quickly! Into the darkness!"

The tall alien plunged ahead, leading the way. Charlie grabbed Kippy's hand again and they followed, and the others followed them. Incredibly, instead of being engulfed within the darkness, it receded before them, the tanks appearing to each side as they ran, totally undamaged, until, quite suddenly, the darkness itself vanished.

Before them was a small creature, two-legged, brown of skin, with two short arms, now thrown up in terror before a cone-shaped head that held two large eyes, now closed behind the hands. It was wearing a brown one-piece suit and brown boots, and no helmet at all. They encircled it, immediately sensing its fear and distress, and wondering how this small creature could be related to the terrifying sights and sounds they had just witnessed only moments ago. But even as they wondered, a dozen other creatures materialized from the gaps between the tanks around them, running at full tilt to encircle their own circle. The newcomers were taller than they, wearing green spacesuits with silvery, faceless helmets, and held what could only be weapons in their large, gloved hands, unquestionably aimed at Charlie and his friends. Another of the suited aliens appeared and plunked down onto the ground what was obviously a machine of some sort, and then stood back, and drew a weapon of his own.

One of the helmeted figures stepped forward. "I would advise you all to remain motionless," he said quietly. Charlie was shocked to understand that it was Trichani he was hearing, translated to English by his earpiece. He turned then to look at Kontus, as that one crinkled his brow in suspicion.

"You know these people?" he asked the big Trichani.

Kontus shook his head. "I do not recognize their gear. And there are many bipeds in the five empires."

"Who we are is not important," the alien spokesman said. "We do not want trouble with you. Just step aside and give us the Tarvil, and you may go free."

Charlie turned and looked at the little alien among them, who still was hiding behind its raised hands. It looked terrified, and as if hiding behind its hands would protect it from harm. There was something touchingly innocent about that, and it only firmed Charlie's desire to defend the little alien.

"And if we don't give him up?"

The alien, now obviously the leader of their group, carefully placed his pistol back into its holster, and just as carefully put his hands on his hips. "Then we will need to come and get him, and some of your party may be injured."

Charlie nodded, seeing now a need to gain time. "You'll allow us to discuss this among ourselves?"

The alien offered an open hand to him. "Please. Let us avoid violence."

"This would seem to be a good time to make plans," Illia suddenly said. "I have muted your external annunciators, and these interlopers cannot hear our encrypted coms. What do you want to do, Charlie?"

Charlie was stunned. "Where have you been?"

"I have been right here all along, Charlie. Murcha and Onglet, too. You are the ones that have been absent. We called to you, but you did not answer."

"We've been right here," Kippy said, sounding amazed. "You didn't answer! None of you!"

"On the contrary," Murcha said then. "We have been able to hear every word that all of you have said, and we have been trying to speak with you. It appears you were made not to hear us."

Charlie digested that bit of information, and decided that it didn't matter. They were back in communication with the shipminds now. "I'm not sure what to do."

"There has been some sort of sensor blanket over your entire area, apparently," Murcha told them. "It seems to have been lifted. I am now detecting all of you again, a number of others with you, and a vessel of some sort, several miles away."

"A ship?" Mike asked, sounding surprised. "Down here?"

"Not so surprising," Murcha countered. "Someone else has obviously broken the encryption of the barrier, just as we are working on doing now. I suggest caution until we know more about these others."

Bobby gave a half-laugh at that. "We know they're pointing guns at us. What more do we need?"

Charlie looked over at Kontus. "Can you start talking to them a moment? Ask some questions about how they know your language, or something? So we can talk?"

"If Illia will reactivate my external annunciator."

"Done," the shipmind quickly returned.

Kontus carefully raised a hand, and pointed a finger at the alien leader. "How is it you speak Trichani, if I may ask?"

The other's shoulders turned briefly side-to-side, as if he was exchanging amused looks with his fellows. "We do not. What you hear is the output of a translator. Yours is the only breed we recognize among your group. The others are unknown to us. So your tongue was the logical choice."

Charlie turned away as the two talked.

"Pacha? Frit? Can you disarm these guys?"

"There is a problem," the Kift returned. "That machine they placed on the ground there is a damper, of the sort the Moth use among themselves to keep their own kind from power using. My powers are somewhat reduced."

"Mine, too!" Frit whispered. "Gives me a headache!"

"You can't do anything?" Charlie replied, feeling the first real tug of alarm. Not having the back up of Pacha's and the elf's powers might prove to be their undoing.

"I think I could still disarm all of them," Pacha replied. "Fortunately, the damper seems not intended for us. It operates at brainwave frequencies higher than those that would properly curtail my abilities. It is a distraction, more than a disabler."

Not aimed at them? Charlie turned and glanced briefly at the machine. Then what?...oh...of course! The leader of the aliens had just said he did not recognize the humans or other species in Charlie's group. So they would also not know that there were power users among them. The damper must have a purpose, though. If it wasn't intended to hobble them, then it could only be aimed at...

He turned back and dropped his gaze to the little alien among them. It had not moved, and still hid behind its hands, as if this would actually shield it from peril. There was a heartbreaking quality to its fear, one that made Charlie angry. Who the hell were these aliens, and what did they want with this little one?

His eyes went back to Pacha's. "How about if Frit and Pip and Keerby aid you? All of you, at once, seize these guy's weapons and get rid of them?"

The three elves looked at each other, and Frit nodded. "I think we can do that, if we do it together. It doesn't seem to be a very good damper, and it doesn't reach very far. Whoever made it doesn't know power users very well."

Charlie felt a glimmer of hope at that. "Okay, when I say 'do it', all four of you go after the weapons pointed at us. Got it?"

"Got it." Frit grinned, and Charlie almost had to smile at the elf's excited tone.

"I'll do my best, Charlie," Pacha replied.

Charlie turned back to Kontus and the alien leader. Despite being unable to see through the alien's mirrored helmet, Charlie felt certain that the alien was watching him.

Charlie smiled. "We have a ship up above, you know. Even if you kill us, you'll still have to deal with it on your way out."

The alien leader gave out what was obviously a small sigh of frustration. "We do not wish to kill you. As for the vessel above, we have scanned it. It's unarmed. And, it cannot get through the barrier just yet. I would not place your hopes there."

But Charlie did gain hope from those words. Lollipop's disguise, placed there by Max, had not been breached by these intruders. They thought the vessel unarmed, when in fact it was basically a Moth pocket battleship. If they hadn't detected the deception, then their technology was not exactly superior, and so Murcha would definitely surprise them if they took a shot at him.

Kippy waved a hand at the alien leader. "Why don't you just tell us why you want this little guy, and maybe that will help us to decide?"

"Very well." The alien leader gave a distinct nod of his head. "He is a criminal, wanted on our world for high crimes. We have come to take him back to face those charges."

"What charges?" Ragal demanded, not sounding at all convinced. "You have evidence of a crime?"

The tall alien took a step towards them. "You have seen the evidence for yourself. The Tarvil is a power user, one who's specialty is illusion. This one has used that power to escape our world, and the hand of justice that would deal with him. We were sent to hunt him down and return him for trial for his heinous crimes."

There was something off about that. Charlie couldn't claim one iota of experience with little aliens with pointed heads that hid timidly behind their hands, but imagining the one standing behind him committing 'heinous' crimes seemed almost laughable. couldn't judge a book by its cover, certainly. So how...?

Charlie turned to Kippy. "What does your skwish say about this little fellow?"

Kippy smiled. "That he is the reason we are here. And that we must not let these others take him."

"No way give him up," Adrian said.

"We cannot," Ragal added, with emphasis.

Charlie nodded.

"Charlie?" It was Pacha'ka.


The Kift's expression could only be termed suspicious. "I have reached out to sense the weapons these characters possess, to see how much force I may need to carry them away, and...they are not there."

"We don't feel 'em, either," Frit whispered. "They're bogus!"

Charlie's eyes skipped back to Pacha. "Huh? Are they even armed at all?"

"Yes. But...I don't know how to say this, but their weapons seem to be inside their bodies. This leads me to believe that what we are seeing is not the true form of these aliens at all. I suspect we are seeing projections of some sort."


Charlie turned to stare at the aliens again. They were standing still, their arms raised, the weapons in their hands pointed at Charlie's group. The leader still stood with his hands on his hips, as if waiting patiently. "You have made your decision?" he asked.

Charlie smiled. "Almost there. Another minute or two."

He turned back to Pacha. "Can you guys focus on their real weapons, and remove them when I say?"

"Yes, Charlie. There seem to be a number of devices inside each projection. They are smaller than anticipated, so I think we can get them all at one time."

Frit and Pip and Keerby all nodded. "They're little things!" Pip exclaimed.

Charlie let his eyes circle the group. Everyone had been listening, and no one had missed hearing what was happening. Charlie smiled. "On my mark, everyone."

They nodded, promising to be ready for whatever came next.

Charlie turned back to the alien leader. "We've decided."

The man's stance conveyed a sudden eagerness. "You will give up the Tarvil?"

Charlie smiled. "Not quite. it!"

Several things happened at once. The aliens encircling them seemed to suddenly vibrate and shake in an unbelievable manner, and then a flurry of tiny devices erupted forth from within each and went flying in all directions. The suited forms collapsed and vanished, revealing, instead, a small circle of more little brown aliens with pointed heads!

The one standing where the alien leader had been raised its thin arms and shrieked, and Charlie's translator delivered the horrified cry of, "power users!" to his ears.

As one, the little aliens turned to run. Their small legs moved with amazing swiftness, but Ricky and Bobby both dived forward into a chase, and quickly caught and grabbed up the alien leader. It struggled mightily between them, and the two boys carried it back and dumped it at Charlie's feet. In an instant, it had bolted upright again, and only a quick grab by Ricky kept it from diving between their legs and making off again.

Ricky jerked the alien forward then, and Bobby grabbed the other arm and steadied the creature. It suddenly gave up trying to flee, and stared up at Charlie with horror in its gray eyes. "Abominations! Power users! Spawn of evil!"

Charlie was so surprised that he laughed. "Not so tough now, are you?"

The little alien stamped a foot on the ground. "I was merciful! I intended to let you leave unharmed! Why would you do this?" It turned, and virtually spat in the direction to the little alien still cowering by Kippy. "For!"

Ricky pursed his lips and whistled.

Charlie frowned down at the alien. "You said this one is a criminal. What are his crimes?"

"His crimes? He is a crime himself! He is different! He is a power user! He must be destroyed!"

Charlie stared at the creature. "His crime is that he's a power user?"

"Of course! He is a sport, a mutation. They have been appearing throughout the race for years now, impure, defiling us as a people. They are abominations!"

"Oh, shit," Kippy breathed. "Is this guy serious?"

Ricky looked angry. "I could slip and accidentally break his arm."

Charlie glared at him. "One killer is enough, okay?"

Ricky looked surprised, and then embarrassed. "Yeah. Sorry. I'm a little mad, is all."

Charlie nodded. "I understand." He looked down at the alien again. "Has member of your species, actually committed a real crime?"

The small alien actually managed to look indignant. "I just said so, didn't I? His evil power was discovered and he was turned in. He was arrested and set to be euthanized, and he then used that abominable power to make his escape. He fled justice!"

Charlie just stared at the creature. "You would have killed him for being different?"

"Of course! Such evil powers are not normal! They are a defect in the genetic line. They must be eradicated, to maintain purity. It is the law!"

Kippy curled his lip. "And you people have spaceflight?"

"I do not recognize your species," Kontus said then, anger quite plain in his voice. "Where do you come from?"

The small alien's face contorted. "I will not tell you. We do not want to associate with such as you. You are not pure even among your own kind. You allow all manner of differences to crop up, and you do nothing about it!. You and your thoughts would only foment disease within our people! Stay away!"

It was the first time that Charlie had ever seen the big Trichani looking really upset. "This one is trouble, Charlie," Kontus grated, shaking his head. "I would not trust one such as this to make an honest deal on anything."

"I gathered that much." Charlie returned his gaze to the small alien. "Makes it hard for me to believe you'd have just let us walk away if we'd handed your boy over."

"I would have. To kill you might have been to bring us to the attention of your people. You are diseased, but you empire people are absurdly powerful. We don't want you finding our world. You would bring death and destruction upon us!"

Charlie pulled back from the alien. "Holy crap." He had read about fanaticism before, but until now the concept was just an exercise in thought. But if this wasn't the real deal, he was Kippy's mother!

"So you were just going to take this guy back and kill him off, huh?"

"We tracked him down and captured him. But the dampener is new technology, and it failed on the way home. This monster made us see the wrong things, enter the wrong course, and we eventually wound up here, where he escaped the ship again." The alien again lunged towards Kippy and the cowering alien, and only Ricky's grip on its arm stopped him.

"So you wound up here, at a world you'd never seen before," Charlie said. "How did you get down here?"

"That one came down the same way you did, on one of the space elevators. We could not follow him that way. We had to decrypt the barrier, and that took a very long time. We were aware that the Tarvil could survive by eating the food offered in many of the buildings here, even though it was not pure. More proof of his tainted nature! But we could not leave, and still hunted for him."

"Very devoted of you," Adrian said, nastily.

The alien leader was obviously of the talkative variety. "We finally broke the encryption on the barrier, and then we were able to bring the ship down, and intensify the search. And still, the criminal's powers protected him, making us do all the wrong things, look in all the wrong places." The alien glared at the other member of his kind, still hiding behind his hands. "Such resistance to the law can only be dealt with harshly!"

Charlie simply shook his head. "Why didn't you just leave him and go?"

The alien gave a small snort. "The law says he must be destroyed. Leaving him here would not be in compliance. So we persisted. And then, you people arrived. More interference! At first we just watched you, but then we understood that you were somehow after the criminal, that you could track him. We suspected then that he had somehow brought you here, to aid him in another escape. So we continued to watch you, and you led us to him. The dampener was repaired by then, and it removed the threat of his powers, and we had him." The alien's face contorted again. "But you are just like him! Power users! We could not foresee that. Abominations!"

Ricky made no bones about being mad now. "I could still break that arm, Charlie."

"No. Let him go," Charlie said, waving a hand. He glared at the alien. "You...get out of here, before I change my mind."

Bobby frowned. "You sure, Charlie?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. I don't even want him around."

Ricky and Bobby let go, and the alien immediately turned and ran.

"I'm not sure that was a good idea," Mike said then. "That one's a feral little bastard."

Kippy shook his head, plainly upset. "All they needed to do was go home and leave this one here, and they'd have been rid of him. He'd have been stranded on this planet, all alone. But they were so focused on getting him and hurting him that they stayed." Kippy looked grim. "I don't get that kind of hate."

"It is a disease, itself," Kontus said. "And one of the hardest to cure."

"No doubt," Charlie said. "Pacha, Frit? All of you stay alert a moment, will you?"

"We will!" Frit said, smiling. "You did that pretty well, Charlie. Good job!"

"Releasing the creature was of course the correct decision," Pacha agreed. "But it may bring us trouble later."

"I guess we'll see." Charlie turned to Ragal, and pointed at the small alien in their midst. "Can we talk to this guy?"

He nodded, and sank to his haunches before the frightened little alien. Kippy, standing alongside the small creature, had placed a reassuring hand on its tiny shoulder, and was rubbing it comfortingly. Charlie smiled, knowing how Kippy was in that mode, himself.

Ragal watched the small alien, still hiding behind its hands. "They're gone, you know. You can come out now."

For a moment nothing happened. But then one hand briefly moved to the side and an eye peeked out at the many faces around it. And then the hand whipped back to cover the eye.

Ragal laughed, a very pleasant sound. "It's okay. I know you don't understand my words yet, but these are your friends." Carefully, he raised his own hands, and gently wrapped his fingers about the little alien's forearms. The small one flinched back a step, but made no other move.

Ragal gently rubbed the forearms with his thumbs. "It would be nice to see who is hiding back there. I promise you we will not harm you."

Slowly, one hand lifted, and again an eye stared out at them. Ragal gave a gentle laugh, and smiled. "That's halfway. Let's see the rest of you, okay?"

The eye looked around at them, and Charlie saw everyone respond with a smile. That seemed to embolden the little creature, and the other hand peeled back, and the other eye looked out at them. But both hands stayed against the alien's face, ready to clamp back down over the eyes at a moment's notice.

"Very good," Ragal said approvingly. "What enchanting eyes you have. A pity to hide them away like that."

The eyes focused on Ragal, who simply smiled, and watched the alien, somehow making it very clear that he had all the time and all the patience in the world. Charlie marveled at that, at the way that the small alien's eyes seemed to search Ragal's, looking for answers, and the way that Ragal supplied them, without so much as a single word. The tall alien had said his kind had a gift for absorbing languages and cultures, but Charlie could see it was much more than that now. Ragal had an empathy and sympathy for others that was clear, and an ability to offer peace where it seemed that peace would fear to tread.

"There you go," Ragal said softly, his smile widening.

The Tarvil's eyes moved back and forth, again searching Ragal's, and then the tiny mouth curved into a smile. Kippy sighed, and beamed at Charlie, who simply had to smile himself.

"Charlie," Murcha said through the com, "the alien vessel is lifting off. It looks like it may be heading for your location."

Charlie immediately turned to Pacha. "Can you take all of us back to the ship?"

The Kift waved a hand at the dampener, still standing nearby. "If someone can turn that thing off, yes."

Ricky turned and walked over to the device, pulled his vibratory sword, and swiped it deftly across the length of it. There was a brief hum, and the sound of several beer cans being squashed, and the alien machine fell into two halves.

"It's off," Ricky said, smiling. He returned the sword to its scabbard, and came back to stand with Adrian. "See? I was careful."

Adrian smiled, pulled Ricky's arm into his hands, and squeezed him closer. "My hero."

Pacha quickly waved a hand around at them. "Everybody, come closer!"

Ragal gently picked up the Tarvil and cradled him in has arms. "We're leaving this dreadful place, okay?"

Pacha raised a hand to move them, and Charlie reached out and laid his own atop it. "I need to know something first, Pacha." He glanced over his shoulder at Ragal and the Tarvil. "I need to know that our new friend will not be a danger to us with his powers of illusion."

"No, Charlie, he won't. Powerful as he is with regard to the normal minds of his own people, you yourself noticed that his illusions were not perfect. Now that we are aware of his abilities, neither myself nor Frit and the other elves can be taken in by them."

"That's right," Frit said, "He'll be fine!"

"He'll be happy!" Pip added, laughing.

Keerby just shrugged. "I'm with them."

Charlie laughed, and nodded at Pacha. "Let's go."

There was a rumble above them, and they could see the alien ship as it sped towards them, oddly lit by the imagers in their helmets. It looked like an inverted acorn, and even as he watched, a string of small lights danced along the bottom edge of it.

"Missiles!" Illia called, sounding unbelievably restrained. "Impact in five seconds."

Pacha smiled at Charlie. "A shame we won't be here to receive them." And then he waved his hand.

"Welcome back," Murcha said, as they took seats aboard Lollipop. "That was cutting your exit too close." The ship had left the bay of the terminal station, and now floated serenely in a high planetary orbit.

"It may have worked to our benefit," Pacha said. "By leaving scant seconds before impact, it may appear to our friends that we were obliterated by the explosions."

"They'll be on their way up here next," Onglet said. "I hope they're not looking for trouble."

"Can they hurt us?" Charlie asked, from his pylon seat.

"Not in the least. Their technical level is well down from ours. The missiles they employed used chemical explosives."

Charlie smiled at that. "That is primitive!"

"They must have a fairly decent cryptological capability, or they would never have breached the barrier around Erenar," Illia stated.

"It may have taken them some time to do that, too," Murcha returned.

Onglet chuckled. "Here they come."

The ship's main display showed a section of the pearly barrier below them. As they watched, the section became dull, then opaque, and then a round, black hole appeared. The acorn ship rose up through the hole, and then the hole closed again.

"They have turned towards us," Murcha said.

The alien ship approached their own, and they saw the unmistakable winks of more missiles being launched from the lower region of the ship.

"That's not nice!" Kippy said, slapping the armrest of his seat.

"They will be unable to penetrate our screens," Onglet said.

Indeed, the six missiles came within ten thousand miles of their ship, and then detonated against the Moth protective barrier. The light show was impressive, and Charlie instinctively held up a hand to shield his eyes, even as the display cut the illumination down to something easy to watch.

"Second stage fusion devices," Onglet said then. "Not a threat to our defenses. Shall we respond?"

All eyes turned to Charlie, who blinked in surprise. "What? I don't want to shoot at them if they can't hurt us."

Pacha tchick-tchick-tchicked. "A warning shot across their bow may make them vacate the system in a timely fashion."

Charlie laughed at that. "What about it, Onglet? Can you give them a scare?"

"It would be my pleasure, Charlie."

They heard a small tzzing from somewhere belowdecks, and four dark, ghostly vortexes leaped out at the alien ship. They crossed the interval in a few seconds, and looked to just graze by the alien vessel before disappearing into the darkness beyond.

The alien acorn suddenly turned, and began to diminish in size. Quickly.

"I think that gave 'em something to think about," Mike said, laughing. "Gravity vortexes aren't no joking matter."

Charlie leaned back in his pylon seat and closed his eyes. He felt a touch on his arm, and opened them again. Kippy smiled at him. "Tired?"

"Yes. I feel relieved, though. I think we got this done the way it was supposed to be done."

"We'll know shortly."

Murcha had provided seats so that everyone could sit in a large circle, and now that the enemy craft had fled, they felt free to go and do just that. Kippy took Charlie's hand and led him to the soft circular sofa, pushed him down into it, and sat next to him, making sure he was right up against his boyfriend.

"Let me know if you feel crowded," Kippy said, putting an arm around Charlie's shoulders.

Charlie smiled. "I'm good."

In fact, there seemed to be a lot of romance and good feelings in the room. Ricky and Adrian looked much like Charlie and Kippy, sitting quite close together and smiling and talking. Mike and Bobby held a similar pose, with Pacha leaned back in the sofa on Mike's free side. Frit and Pip were sitting side by side with their legs crossed over, laughing over something, while Keerby sat nearby and grinned.

Kontus and Ragal had taken up positions on either side of their little guest, who, now that the scary part was over, seemed quite animated and happy. The small alien had a small voice as well, and spoke in a tongue that did not yet translate through their Kifta translators. Ragal seemed able to talk to the little guy already nonetheless, albeit hesitantly, and Kontus seemed quite satisfied to sit and watch and learn.

Pacha raised a small hand of his own, and Mike cleared his throat loudly. Bobby grinned at that, and laid his head on Mike's shoulder. Kippy sighed at the sight, and cuddled even closer to Charlie. Charlie just sighed happily.

"If I may," Pacha began. The conversation slowed, and then stopped as everyone turned to look at the little koala. "There are important questions that need to be answered." He turned immediately to Keerby. "What of the time discontinuity you were worried about?"

Keerby looked startled at the sudden attention, and smiled a little shyly. "Well, it's passed. We have managed to preserve the main timeline."

Pacha nodded. "And?"

Keerby looked hesitant, and Frit and Pip laughed. Frit poked Keerby in the ribs. "He means what does that mean!"

"Oh." The elf looked embarrassed. "Well, as I said, this was to be an instant where a singular event could only go one of two ways. In this instance, I believe it was that we kept the Tarvil from being taken away, which points to the pivotal action being him living or dying."

"Obviously, he lived," Pacha reminded.

"Yes, and that was apparently the course of action needed." Keerby smiled at the small alien next to Ragal. "At some future date, this little guy is going to be important to the welfare of the universe."

Kontus looked amazed. "This small creature? Are you sure?"

"Well--" Keerby shrugged "-- yeah. Again, it might not be just something he does, but something he does in connection with others."

Adrian squeezed his eyes shut. "One guess who these others might be."

"Not necessarily," Keerby replied. But then he grinned. "But highly likely."

Charlie smiled at the elf. "Thank you for coming along with us and keeping time at bay. We couldn't have done this without your help."

Keerby blushed. "Actually, this is most fun I think I've ever had. If you ever need me again, just let me know."

Kippy shook his head. "Amazing, how so many things needed to happen just so we could be here to keep those creeps from capturing this guy."

"We all had to be here," Keerby pointed out. "Every one of us had some part in this, even if we have no idea what it was. But the end result was that the Tarvil was saved."

Ragal raised a hand. "I must say something. We must not call our new friend 'the Tarvil'. Rather than being his name, it is a highly derogatory term in his native language, and not one we would wish to use with a friend. His name is Casperkupratonnagalish, but he said we can call him Casper for short."

Kippy laughed. "Good thing! I think we'd sprain our tongues with the full name." He leaned forward, drawing Charlie with him, and smiled at the little alien. "Hi, Casper. I'm Kippy. And this is Charlie."

Casper's large gray eyes watched Kippy solemnly, but a trace of a smile tugged at his thin, small mouth. "Kipp-eee. Cher-lee."

Kippy looked delighted. " A little practice, and you'll have it down pat."

Names were traded all around, and Casper repeated each with grave intensity.

"Serious little guy, isn't he?" Mike asked.

"He is young," Ragal offered. "Perhaps not as old as yourselves."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "A kid! And those creeps were chasing him around, trying to kill him!" He crossed his arms and fumed. "We should have shot their legs off and left them on one of those metal roadways on the planet. One big truck coming along would have taught them a few manners!"

A round of amazed laughter circled the sofa, and Charlie leaned against his boyfriend and kissed his cheek. "Temper, temper."

Kippy pouted, and then shook his head. "That's awful." His eyes moved to Casper again, and he managed a smile. "I'm just glad we could help."

"There is another matter of importance," Pacha said. "The alien leader said that Casper escaped their ship, and came down in one of the space elevators, and that they could not follow him that way."

Charlie nodded, remembering. "So?"

Pacha's muzzle twitched in a smile. "How was that done? We were only able to do it because our shipminds were superior and able to overpower the mind running the terminal station, which allowed us to board. And then we were only able to come down in the elevator car because Illia took charge of that system." Pacha turned and offered another Kift smile to Casper. "So how did our little friend manage that trip?"

Charlie was not alone in turning to stare at Casper.

Pacha continued. "There is also the matter of our sudden loss of communication at the storage tanks with Murcha, Onglet, and Illia, when they say that they could hear us, but we could not seem to hear them. I suspect that was an illusion, and that we simply were made not to hear."

Ragal held up a hand. "I agree. As to how our new friend gained access to the space elevator, I have been communicating with Casper, albeit slowly, and have been told something of his escape. I have concluded that his powers are not simply those of illusion. He seems to have a way with machines, as well."

Frit laughed. "Just like Grandpa Max!"

Charlie smiled at that, recalling how the older elf had made contact with Murcha when the Moth spacecraft was first parked in Charlie's backyard, and convinced the shipmind to allow them aboard. "So when will we have the full story?"

Ragal smiled. "As I said, I am pretty good with languages. Once I have a good handle on Casper's, I'll train the translators, and it will be easier for all of us to talk."

Pacha's muzzle crinkled in another almost smile. "That will take a little time, will it not?"

Ragal's smile widened. "A little time, yes."

The Kift looked satisfied. "Then I suggest we head to Engris, where we can all take a little time to rest."

"And visit the market!" Adrian said, smiling.

"And buy goodies!" Pip added

"Ooh!" Frit cooed, grinning.

Keerby nodded. "A couple of keepsakes might be fun, to go with my suit of many colors."

Mike leaned against Bobby, and kissed his cheek. "Take a quick jaunt to the spirit dome with me, to see your grandma?"

Bobby's eyes glowed. "Sure!"

Kippy's unhappiness with their former adversaries faded as if by magic. "Ooh! We can see Billy and Will!"

Kontus looked happy. "I can work on selling some of those trinkets I picked up at the Tower of Arimides."

Ricky looked over at Charlie and grinned. "I'm starting to feel like a pro at this outer space adventuring stuff."

Charlie nodded, feeling a certain peace settle over him. "Yeah. Me, too."

Pacha waved a hand at them. "Everyone, wish to go to Engris!"

And so they did.

The inn was quiet. The courtesy expected of all on Engris extended to every aspect of life there, and there simply was no reckless activity. There were many establishments on Engris that set a fine table and offered beverages of the stimulating variety, but the activity was well-policed by the owners of these places, and patrons were not allowed to wander away drunk, high, or otherwise too impaired for their own good. That was not to say that there were not those on Engris who enjoyed going off on the occasional tear, but they were wise enough to do it aboard their own ships or in their own homes, and stay in afterwards to recover. Others would to head back to normal space to find such entertainment, and not return until it was well behind them. Engris was a state of mind as much as a place to live and do business, and those lucky enough to be allowed to land there or live there had learned to guard that right jealously.

They all felt the need to rest after their adventure, and Pacha had suggested getting rooms at an inn where they could have some privacy and relax. Much as they liked the company of Murcha, Onglet, and Illia, neither Pacha's ship nor Lollipop were really comfortable enough with such a crowd aboard as they had now. Here at the inn, Charlie and Kippy could have their own room, as could the others, and they had slept a wonderful couple of subjective nights together wrapped in each other's arms, with no cares at all to bother them. There in no-time they could relax and reinvigorate themselves, without thought or worry about what might be slipping by them back on Earth. It was a much needed rest, and they had decided to stay over another subjective day or three before heading home.

"Just as long as I don't miss Halloween," Kippy reminded, as they relaxed after the evening meal. Rick and Adrian had the adjoining room on one side, and Mike and Bobby the one on the other. The six of them had joined up for an evening of talk and general bullshit, and were kicked back in the seating area of their rooms, two grand sofas that faced each other across a generous coffee table, and a few satellite chairs placed about. The inn was one that let you design your own accommodations, and the boys had made certain the each suite had a place that would allow all of them to visit together.

"You're not going to miss Halloween," Charlie said, sighing. "Keerby said he could have us back less than two minutes after we left. Then you'll be bored, waiting for Thursday evening."

"I'm never bored, Charlie." Kippy grinned and waved a hand around the room. "With this bunch? It's like sitting in the front row at the circus with the lions and the elephants just ten feet away."

They all laughed at that, and Ricky turned and kissed Adrian's cheek playfully. "Hear that? I'm a lion. What are you?"

Adrian was not about to be cast as an elephant. He turned and looked his boyfriend over carefully, and then smiled. "I'm the lion tamer. So watch your manners, Richard Travers!"

Charlie joined the others in oohing over that, and laughing. Ricky's eyes grew large, and then he grinned. "Gonna whip me with your big whip?"

Adrian tried hard not to laugh. "I will if I have to."

Ricky sighed, and extended both arms, as if to have the cuffs placed on him. "Take me away and do your wickedest."

Mike, sitting with his arm around Bobby, gave the boy a squeeze. "You're gonna learn all sorts of strange love rituals from these Yanks. Better watch yourself."

Bobby smiled, but pretended to be affronted. "Let me remind you that I'm a Yank, too."

"Oh, I'll break you of that," Mike returned, sweetly. "Have you humpin' like an excited wombat and lovin' every minute of it."

Bobby started laughing, and leaned his head against Mike's. "Charlie, what do they do to these guys in Australia to make them so nutty?"

"You got me. Someone told me they grow guys on trees there."

"More like in them," Kippy said, tossing Mike a toothy smile.

Mike grinned. "There's not a single monkey in Oz, Kipper. Well, outside of the government, maybe."

Someone knocked on the door of their room then, and Charlie jumped up to see who it was. They had specified an old fashioned, genuine Earth-type door with a knob that turned for their room, tired of all the fancy doors they'd been dealing with that slid up, down, to the side, spilt in the middle, or dilated in some strange manner. Charlie grabbed the knob and opened the door, knowing full well that the inn's security was top-notch, and that this was Engris, after all.

It was Ragal. The man smiled at him, and motioned with his hand at the room beyond. "It sounds like you're having fun. May we come in for a visit?"

Charlie blinked. "We?"

Just then, a small brown face peeked around Ragal at the hip. A thin arm came out, and waved timidly. "Hi, Charlie."

Charlie couldn't help smiling. "Casper! What are you doing back there?"

The little alien came out of hiding, and smiled up at him. "Ragal said we would surprise you."

Charlie gaped at the perfect English he was hearing. Well, the perfect translation he was hearing from his translator, anyway. "Hey, wow! That's great!"

Ragal smiled again. "Surprise! I uploaded a new language revision to your ear pieces. It's safe to say that Casper is now ninety-five percent compatible with all the various tongues he will encounter. And I am working on that last five percent needed to get the job completed."

Charlie stepped back and waved the two inside. "Come on in. We're just hanging out. I know the guys will be thrilled to see you both."

Ragal used a hand to gently usher Casper into the room, and Charlie closed the door behind them. Casper was wearing a new suit a soft green in color, and looked comfortable and happy. He had taken well to the tolerant atmosphere of Engris, and had been nothing but smiles among his new friends.

The others clapped when they saw who it was, and waved at Casper, and Kippy asked him how he was doing.

"Good. Ragal and I came to surprise you with talk."

The guys looked amazed, and Kippy clasped his hands together in front of his chest and just beamed. "Oh, that's wonderful! Come over here and sit, and we can talk. I have about a million questions I want to ask you!"

Casper had already grown fond of Kippy, and immediately hastened across the room to jump up onto the couch beside him. His short legs barely reached the edge of the couch cushion as he turned to sit between Kippy and Charlie, and Charlie smiled at the little guy's nimbleness. Ragal took an empty chair, and draped himself over it in a fashion that made Charlie want to laugh. The lanky alien seemed able to bend in places that no human could match, despite the fact that he shared the same basic placement of joints that Charlie and the others had.

"That was really fast," Charlie said, smiling at Ragal. "You're a wizard with words, definitely."

Ragal looked embarrassed. "It's the specialty of my people, Charlie." He laughed. "Someone had to be good at languages. I guess it was us."

"No question there." Kippy's eyes twinkled a moment at Charlie, and then he looked down at Casper again. "I don't even know where to start."

"The beginning is usually a good place," Adrian said drily.

Casper laughed, a pleasant little sound that reminded Charlie of the sound a hamster he'd had as a boy had made. It caused everyone to smile all over again, and Kippy closed his eyes a moment and nodded to himself. "It's wonderful to hear you sounding so happy."

He opened his eyes as Casper spun his tapering head in a little circle. They had learned that this was his equivalent of a nod, the very short neck his species possessed unable to supply the up and down movement that humans enjoyed. "I am." Casper looked around at the others, his large gray eyes solemn. "I want to thank you all again for coming to get me."

Kippy pouted, and put an arm around Casper and gave him a gentle hug. "You don't need to thank us. We just did what we do."

Charlie smiled at that, and patted Casper's hand. "You're welcome, Casper. But it's really like Kip said. We came to help because that's what we thought we needed to do." He tilted his head at Ragal. "There's the man you should be thanking. He started the whole thing."

Ragal shook his head. "Don't you believe it, Casper. It was a group effort, and we were all happy that it worked out for you."

Casper's eyes circled around the room again. "Thank you, group."

Kippy briefly compressed his lips together, and then seemed momentarily at a loss. "I don't know what's safe to talk about. I don't want to upset you."

"I can talk about anything now," Casper told him. "I'm not scared anymore."

Ragal had determined that Casper had been near the end of his strength when they had reached him. Fear, lack of proper nourishment, and being all alone in his struggle had taken its toll. When Charlie's group had rushed him in the space between the storage tanks, Casper had thought the world was ending for him. The appearance almost immediately thereafter of his pursuers with the damper, and the accompanying end of his ability to defend himself, had been the final straw. Casper had simply retreated behind his own hands to wait for the end.

Being with Ragal and Kontus for two days seemed to have worked a little magic. Casper had taken well to all his rescuers, in fact. Their willingness to accept him as one of their own seemed to have overcome his fears and his innate shyness. But it was Ragal who was most responsible for Casper's transformation. The man definitely had something special inside of him, and an easy willingness to share it with others.

"Well, I know what I want to ask you," Ricky said, laughing. "I want to know where you came up with that monster you showed us between the storage tanks. That thing nearly had us pissing in our pants."

Casper looked amused by Ricky's choice of words. "I got that from you, actually."

Ricky looked stunned. "From me!"

The little alien nodded solemnly. "It was there in your mind. From --" He suddenly looked confused. "I don't know what it's called." He held out his hands before him as if he was holding something, and moved his thumbs rapidly.

Adrian laughed. "That looks like a video game controller."

Ricky shook his head. "You mean a video game? That monster came from a video game?"

Casper dropped his hands and gave his circular nod. "Mostly. I added things from all of you, that you thought was scary."

"You can read our minds?" Bobby asked, looking amazed.

"No. I see pictures of your thoughts, but I can't hear the words. What scares you is there in your mind, just as are the things you like. I guess I can feel what you feel about things. But only if I go look, and I don't like to do that to people." Casper smiled. "It's not nice."

"But you did it to the people from your planet that were chasing you," Kippy said. "To escape from them."

Casper's smiled disappeared. "They were going to put me to sleep forever."

"Because you're different? That's really no reason."

"That's what they told you, that it was because I'm different and impure, but I know what really scares them. They are afraid that people like me will take control of the planet away from them one day. From the regular people, I mean. The non-power users." Casper smiled again. "Or that people like you will do it. They are afraid of anyone having power outside their control. They hide from the empires, because they fear that empire people will one day come and take control. And they kill people like me for the same reason. They feel like power users are breaking down the back door while the empires are threatening the front one."

Ricky gave out a slow whistle. "Are there many of you? With powers?"

Casper emitted a very charming little chuckle. "There are more and more all the time, but still we are few. It's difficult to really tell, because if someone learns they are a power user, they hide it from everyone so they will not be killed."

"That's gruesome," Adrian said, making a face. "You poor thing."

Casper smiled. "I was lucky. I had a power that could be used to help me get away. Others that have been discovered were not so lucky. Most never get off the planet. I was one of a very few that did."

"And they chased you," Kippy said. "How far? How long?"

"Very far. Very long." Casper's face compressed. "I lost track."

Kippy winced. "So I take it that your world is not that close to Erenar?"

The little alien looked surprised. "I didn't know the name of that world. I only made the ship go there because it had a yellow sun like at home." But then he gave out a tiny sigh. "My planet is not close to Erenar. I made the ship people think they were going home, but we were actually going in the opposite direction. Erenar is a long way from my planet."

Charlie digested that, and then frowned. "We don't really understand the kind of hate and fear that would make them hang around so long on Erenar, looking for you, when they could have just returned home and left you stranded."

"They couldn't take that chance," Casper said. "They were afraid that someone would pick me up at some point, and that I would tell them where our planet was located. They were too afraid of that to leave me."

Kippy made an angry sound. "That is so paranoid! What's with these people? Like anyone would want to visit a planet full of such idiots!"

Charlie smiled at that. "Um...remember how we felt when we thought the Arpies might set up a trade mission on Earth, and suck the place dry of everything?"

Kippy made a rude noise. "I'll take the Arpies anytime, over a bunch of killer scaredy-cats!"

Laughter circled the group, even though everyone knew that Kippy was dead serious about what he was saying.

Ricky snorted. "Your people can't hide forever, Casper. One of the galactic powers will find them, eventually. Then what'll they do?"

"I don't think they'll be found, at least not by accident," Casper countered. "They're very good at hiding."

Charlie frowned. "How so?"

"Oh, they have many ways of not being seen. They are very hard to find if they do not want to be found."

That was less than crystal clear, Charlie decided. "Was it you that kept us from seeing any life on the planet?"

"No. It was them. They have many machines that hide them."

"Their tech wasn't that great," Mike said. "I'm amazed they could hide from Moth scanners."

Casper circled his head again. "The science of my people is best at hiding. Things like space ships and weapons we are not as good as the empires at building. But no one is better at hiding than us."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged looks, both of them wondering at the psychology of an entire race that was so paranoid that their best minds were occupied with hiding them from the rest of the universe. That was nothing short of creepy. And it couldn't be a healthy way to live, either.

Bobby shook his head. "But at the last, they became visible. I mean, Murcha could see them and their ship."

"They thought they were going to have to move the ship. They have to turn off the protection or they can't see to fly." Casper laughed again, and Charlie smiled at the sound of it. Having the little alien around was going to be fun.

"The thing that keeps them from being seen works both ways?" Mike asked, looking incredulous. "That's daft!"

"It's the way it works," Casper countered. "And you saw for yourself that it did work well."

"They kept you hidden from us as well."

"Yes. Every time I got far enough away from them that I lost the ability to make them do the wrong things to find me, they would spot me on the scanners and move the ship close again. They had just done that before you arrived. So I was close enough to them that they could extend the protection that hide me from your scanners, too. They were afraid if you found me, it would lead you to them."

No one said anything for a moment. The kind of wasting fear that Casper described was beyond the ability of all the boys to easily imagine. It created images of small, ugly things that scuttled from one rock to another, hiding beneath, never wanting to see the light of day. There was something almost dirty about it..

"Everybody on your planet is like this?" Kippy asked.

"Most. The very worst always seem to wind up running everything. There's some people who think we would do well to contact the empire and join in the community that exists there. But they keep their opinions to themselves, lest the wrong people find out."

Charlie watched Casper a moment, marveling at all the little alien had overcome in his quest to be free. He smiled then, and patted Casper's shoulder. "We're really happy to have you with us. And that you are safe and happy. I want you to know that you will always have a place here on Engris, and that you will be welcome to join us in our travels."

Kippy brightened at that, and nodded. "We do have fun. I think you'd like it."

Casper smiled at that. "Thank you. You've all been so nice to me. And after I did what I did to you, too." He lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry I tried to scare you."

Kippy laid a hand on Casper's arm, and gently patted it "Don't worry about it. You did what you thought you needed to do to survive. We understand that, believe me."

Ragal, who had been watching and listening, sighed happily. "I would love to stay here on Engris with Casper. There must be something we can do here to earn our keep."

"We'll figure something out," Charlie said, smiling. "In the meantime, we have access to a little credit, so we'll find you two a permanent residence here, okay? And we'll make it big enough that you'll have plenty of room for lots of guests when they drop in to see you."

Casper beamed at Ragal, who also looked very happy.

"Do you have to go?" Casper said, returning his gaze to Kippy. "Can't you stay a little longer?"

Kippy pouted, and looked at Charlie for help.

Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Mike and Bobby looked at each other and nodded.

Charlie smiled. "I'm sure something can be arranged."

"Just so we don't miss Halloween," Kippy reminded.

Ragal leaned forward at that. "You've mentioned that several times, Kip. What exactly is this Halloween?"

Kippy grinned, and slid over, and made room next to himself. "Come on over here, and I'll tell you all about it."

Ragal's eyes widened slightly. "As good as all that?"

"Oh, yes," Kippy said, nodding. "As good as all that."

Charlie sat on the front stoop outside his house, Kippy snuggled close. Ricky and Adrian sat next to them, similarly engaged, and quite content. Above them, a starry night was just beginning to unfold, ready to chase the final streamers of the setting sun to points beyond the horizon. It was chilly out, but quite manageable for Halloween. Charlie and the other boys were made up as ghouls, with some of Ricky's expert facial make up adding considerably to the black clothing they all were wearing.

In the bushes to either side of the front door, small, colored LED lights painted the sidewalk and part of the lawn in pastel colors, while a speaker propped in Charlie's bedroom window overhead played an eerie musical loop. It was a great setting for Halloween, and already the night around them was starting to come alive. Costumed kids were appearing on the sidewalk, accompanied by adults with flashlights, and the beams played eerily along the streets. No one had come up Charlie's front walk just yet...but they would.

Kippy sighed. "I love Halloween."

"You love all holidays," Ricky said, leaning forward and laughing.

Kippy smiled, though the expression was somewhat daunting behind his ghoulish make up. "And your point?"

Adrian gave his boyfriend a gentle jab with his elbow. "Don't poke the bear."

Ricky sighed and sat back. "Nothing. I love them, too."

Kippy tilted his head back and looked down his nose at the other boy. "A wise answer." But that he was enjoying himself was obvious, and Ricky just tightened his arm around Adrian's shoulders and looked happy.

"I wish Mike and Bobby could have been here," Kippy said. "And all the others, actually." He laughed. "I'll bet Casper would love Irving's pizza!"

Seated in a lawn chair next to the boys, a tall figure also dressed in black turned his head and laughed. "A most astonishing creation!"

Charlie smiled at Ragal, thinking how astonishing he looked himself, sitting there, a huge bowl of candy on his lap. "I'm glad you decided to come back with us to see Halloween for yourself. Though I'm sure leaving Casper was hard for you."

"Not really. He likes Kontus, and Kontus was more than willing to stay close to him until I get back. Now that we can all talk together, Casper is learning about many good things. I'd like to think that Kontus will be a very good teacher until I return."

"He will," Charlie agreed. "Kontus is good people."

"And Pacha is there," Kippy reminded. "He'll keep everyone straight."

Charlie laughed. "They're all in no time, anyway, so it's not like it will be that long for them until we get back."

Adrian nodded, and looked up at the star-speckled sky. "I hope Frit and Pip and Keerby are having fun at their school's first annual Elf Halloween Dance."

Ricky nodded at that. "They're the hosts, so I'm sure they'll have fun. Frit said he'd pop in tomorrow and let us know how it went."

"Shh," Charlie said then, pointing down the sidewalk. Two adults with flashlights and three small kids in costume had just turned into the walk. They slowed as they neared and saw the four ghouls sitting on the stoop, and then stopped outright when they spotted Ragal sitting in the chair.

"What's that?" one of the kids whispered, a little boy dressed in a store-bought Batman outfit.

"Come on up," Charlie called. "We don't bite."

"Go ahead, Josh," one of the adults said. "It's just a costume."

The batman figure looked uncertain, and turned to one of the other kids, a girl dressed as a witch. "You go first."

The man who had spoken before laughed. "You'd make your sister go first? That's not being a very good superhero."

"She's older," Josh insisted, peering at Ragal. "And she can run faster'n me."

The third kid, slightly bigger than the other two, groaned. "It's just a fake dummy or something, in a weird mask. Stop being a chicken and come on." He patted batman on the shoulder, turned and held up his bag, and marched forward, straight up to Charlie and the others. "Trick or treat!"

Charlie pointed at Ragal. "He has the candy. Ask him nicely, and I'm sure he'll give you something."

The kid made a derisive sound. "Yeah, right!"

Ragal sat forward then, and offered the bowl. "What kind of candy do you like?"

The brave boy yipped in shock and jumped backwards. "Yow! It's alive!"

The beam of one of the adult's flashlights came up and briefly played across Ragal's face. The man gasped. "Holy...what a great costume!" The light touched Charlie and the others, and then dropped to the pavement. "You all look great, but that guy in the chair takes the prize!"

"That's the best mask I've ever seen," the other adult said, a woman. "Where on earth did you get it?"

"I ordered it online," Ragal said smoothly, using the advice Charlie had given him for just such a question. "It was on sale, too."

Batman had gotten his nerve up. "Wow!" He stepped forward and held up his bag. "Trick or treat!"

Ragal smiled. "Do you like butterscotch, mint, or chocolate?"

"Chocolate, please."

Ragal nodded, and fished a few miniature candy bars out of the bowl and dropped them in the bag. "Next! Butterscotch, mint, or chocolate?"

The candy was handed out, and the party left, still talking about Ragal's wonderful 'mask'.

"You're a hit," Kippy said, smiling sweetly.

"It would appear so. Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm really --"

"--having a good time!" All four boys finished, laughing.

Ragal smiled and sat back, watching the costumed trick or treaters move up and down the street. "What a wonderful custom."

Kippy sighed, and carefully kissed Charlie's made up cheek. "I sure love being with you, Charlie Boone."

Charlie nodded, and carefully returned the kiss. "Me, too. Happy Halloween, Kip."

"Happy Halloween, Charlie. I'm so glad we could help Casper. I just can't imagine a people that would kill their own children just for being different."

"Fear is a beast, Kip. It can destroy even the fondest of hearts." Charlie tilted his head back and looked at the starry sky. "And there's a lot to fear out there, too." He smiled then. "But we won't let that stop us."

Kippy patted Charlie's arm. "You've come to terms with your own demons, I see."

"Yes." Charlie patted Kip's arm. "I have."

"I'm so glad. I was worried about you."

Charlie turned his head, and smiled at his boyfriend. "I know. I know you were. And I love you for it, Kip."

"Oh, Charlie. I love you, too."

Charlie laid his head against his boyfriend's, and closed his eyes a moment, and just reveled in how lucky he was to have such love, and such friends. And then the rustle of candy bags came to them, and a peal of laughter, and Charlie opened his eyes to watch as more trick or treaters came up the walk. Once again the kids oohed and ahhed over Ragal's 'costume', while the adults shook their heads in wonder. "What will they think of next?" asked one astonished mother.

Charlie smiled at that. If only she knew.

Kippy sensed Charlie's reaction, and turned to him. "What are you smiling about?"

"Oh...nothing. Everything. The mysteries of the universe. I don't know." He laughed. "Places to go, things to do."

Kippy sighed, and snuggled closer. "As long as I go with you, that's all that matters."

Charlie nodded. "It's a deal."

And then he settled back, tilted his face skyward once again, and took in the stars.

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