Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Do the Stars Have Hearts, Charlie Boone?

© 2020 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.

"Oumuamua," Charlie Boone said wistfully, sighing and sitting sitting back in his chair at his desk. His laptop was open before him, the screen aglow with the material he'd been reading. A picture stood out there, of a colorful object starkly lit against a dark background.

Over on Charlie's bed, his boyfriend Kippy Lawson was kicked back against the pillow, a magazine open upright atop his chest. "Did you say something?" he asked, turning a page.

Charlie smiled and turned to gaze at his boyfriend. "Oumuamua."

Kippy read on a moment before the oddness of Charlie's statement sank in; and then he lowered the magazine and turned to stare over it at his boy friend. "Oh-moo-a-moo-a?" He smiled. "Sounds like the call of a lovesick cow."

Charlie laughed, and jumped to his feet. "I was just reading about Oumuamua, the first object to pass through our solar system that can actually be shown to have originated in another star system."

Kippy frowned, and then raised his magazine again. "Why do they call it that? Honestly, these astronomy people think up the most outlandish names for the stuff they find."

"Well, most people want to be original, I guess. In this case, the object was first detected by people at the University of Hawaii's telescope on Maui. It was finally given the official designation 1I/2017 U1, but who wants to call stuff by names like that? So they also named it 'Oumuamua', which is Hawaiian for 'a messenger from afar arriving first'."

Kippy lowered the magazine again, and smiled. "I like that. It brings to mind a hunky, tanned guy in a loincloth, with a scroll in one hand and a big smile on his face."

Charlie laughed. "Well, I'm sure it's nothing like that. In fact, they never got a real look at this thing. By the time it was detected, it had already passed its closest approach to the Earth, as well as perihelion, its closest approach to the sun. And its orbit was hyperbolic, meaning it would have one pass at the sun, swing around it, and then head back out into space again, never to return. It was already on its way back out of the solar system when they found it, so they only had like four months to study it before it was gone again."

Kippy looked more interested now. "But they never actually saw it?"

"Uh uh. Not like an image, no. It was too far away by then. But they put every available telescope on it, and they were able to measure the light it reflected, enough to eventually create a light curve that showed it was rotating, and tumbling slowly end-over-end, and that it was six to ten times as long as it was wide. That means it looked kind of like a cigar."

Kippy wrinkled his nose. "Smoking is a repulsive habit."

Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yeah, yeah. But it's really an odd shape for a comet or an asteroid, and no one could really explain why it was like it was. Most astronomers figured the first thing to be discovered that had come from outside the solar system would be a comet, because they're bright and have a tail, and are easier to spot than an asteroid. But Oumuamua had no tail at all, and looked to be an asteroid, instead."

"I thought those came from right here in the solar system?" Kippy said thoughtfully. "The asteroid belt, or the Oort cloud?"

Charlie smiled happily. "You mean you've really been paying attention to me all these years?"

Kippy made an amused sound. "Sweetie, we've been sailing around the stars in alien spaceships for a while now, and visited a lot of weird places. How could I not learn a few things about out there?"

Charlie nodded, feeling slightly disappointed. "Oh. I just thought maybe you'd actually learned a few things from me."

Kippy saw the almost-pout on his boyfriend's face, and set down the magazine and squirmed out of the bed. In an instant he had Charlie in his embrace, and was kissing his cheek. "There, there, Is my wittle Britannica Brain feeling unloved and unappreciated?"

Charlie laughed. "That never happens, not with you around!"

Kippy beamed. "I learn tons of stuff from you, Charlie. I just don't label each thing so I can say where it came from later."

Charlie touched his nose to Kip's, and then kissed him. "Okay. My wounded ego is assuaged." He turned his head and gave it a nod towards the laptop. "Oumuamua came from above the plane of the ecliptic, diving down on the sun, not coming in from the outer solar system. Its orbit was too eccentric to have originated locally. It really had to have come from somewhere else."

Kippy nodded, not wanting to take the wind out of Charlie's sails, but his pragmatic side now considering the viability of this discussion at all. "So is there a point to this?"

Charlie gave Kip a final squeeze, and then stepped back. He raised a hand and pointed at the laptop. "Oumuamua came from outside the system. It had no tail, indicating no outgassing - no sublimation of surface ice as it approached the sun, which releases gases, and which forms a comet's coma and tail. That seems to indicate it's an asteroid, but its shape runs counter to what we know about elongated asteroids. The ones we have observed in our own system are, at best, three times as long as they are wide. Oumuamua is as much as ten times as long as it is wide. There's no way to account for that."

"So it's a fluke," Kippy suggested. "It's bound to happen."

"Yep. Could be." Charlie smiled. "But the coolest thing is that, as Oumuamua moved away from the sun, it showed a really strong non-gravitational acceleration, that couldn't be accounted for by the slingshot around the sun. Something was making it speed up as it left."

Kippy stared at Charlie, understanding coming then. "You think it's a spaceship, or something?"

Charlie smiled. "Well...there's no proof of anything like that. Although one speculation was that the simple pressure of photons emitted from the sun would be enough to account for the acceleration, if Oumuamua was actually a very thin object - like a solar sail, for instance."

Kippy's mouth dropped open, and then he grinned. "That would be so cool! Aliens, surfing through our solar system!"

Charlie laughed. "Yeah, but other evidence seems to suggest that Oumuamua was too massive to be something like a sail. So they decided it must be outgassing on the end still facing the sun, which would be enough to give it the added acceleration."

Kippy's face fell, and he pouted. "Oh. You sure know how to mess up a pretty picture, Charlie!"

Charlie sighed. "Sorry. Outgassing would explain the acceleration, except, Oumuamua was still not showing a tail. They used the Spitzer space telescope and observed Oumuamua for thirty straight hours, but there was no trace of outgassing. The Spitzer is an infrared telescope, and should have been able to spot any gasses in a trail behind Oumuamua as a result of outgassing. But they didn't detect any gasses at all."

Kippy looked interested all over again. "So what was making it speed up?"

"No one knows for sure."

Kippy looked over at the laptop, and then marched across the room and bent to look at the image onscreen. He gasped, and Charlie smiled as he followed his boyfriend to the desk and looked over his shoulder. "Impressive, isn't it? That's just an artist's concept, but it's based on all the data they got, and is thought to be fairly accurate."

On the screen, a long, dark, reddish-tinged gray object hung in space. It looked like rock, but there was almost a sculpted look to it, that suggested more than a natural origin.

"How long is it?" Kippy asked, his voice subdued now.

"They could only guess," Charlie told him. "It was thought to be between six hundred feet and half a mile in length."

Kippy shook his head. "It looks like a spaceship. Or...something. Not just a rock."

Charlie nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. But it's probably just the artist's imagination supplying that sort of detail."

Kippy continued to stare at the screen, and finally shook his head. "I don't think so, Charlie."

Charlie felt a small thrill race throughout his body. "Skwish?"

"Uh huh. I feel like we need to know more about this object."

"We can do that. All it would take is one call to Murcha. He could have the ship here tomorrow, I'll bet."

Kippy looked surprised. "You've already been thinking about this!"

"Well, yeah. How could you look at that picture and not be intrigued? Normally, we'd just have to wonder and leave it at that. But now we actually have a way of finding out what it is."

Kippy finally broke his gaze away from the laptop, and shook his head. "Rick and Adrian, first. They have to be in on this. Then we'll call Murcha,"

Charlie bent forward slightly. "We might miss Valentine's Day, if we're off flying around space."

Kippy broke into a glowing smile, and leaned forward and kissed Charlie. "Don't be silly. Valentine's Day isn't like Christmas or Halloween, where you need to be here with other people to celebrate." He snuggled up against Charlie, and Charlie wrapped his arms around his boyfriend.

"It just takes you and me," Kippy went on softly. "As long as I'm with you, it's Valentine's Day wherever we are."

Charlie closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against Kippy's. "Yeah. You're right about that."

He felt Kippy doing something down low, and smiled and rubbed his hips against his boyfriend's. But the motion didn't stop, and Charlie pulled back and looked down just as Kippy fished his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans.

"But friends do make it better," Kip said, his eyes alight with mischief. "I'll call Adrian now, okay?" He laughed at the disappointed look on Charlie's face. "What did you think I was doing down there, Charlie?"

Charlie blew out an exasperated breath. "Oh, nothing. Nothing that matters now, anyway."

Kippy just grinned, and made his call.

"It's a rock," Ricky said, sounding disappointed. He was staring at the screen of Charlie's laptop. "A big one, but just a rock."

Adrian, next to him, shook his head. "How can you say that? It looks like somebody made it. I think it's important."

Ricky jerked his head back and stared a moment at his boyfriend, and then squinted at the laptop one more time. "I see a rock." But then he smiled. "An utterly cool rock, though." He turned his smile to Charlie. "Are we going?"

"I want to. But Murcha has Lollipop out on a long contract run, and they can't be here for a week."

"What about Pacha and Mike?" Adrian asked.

"And Bobby," Kippy added, smiling. "And Kontus."

Adrian also smiled. "And Bobby, and Kontus. Are they busy?"

Charlie sighed. "They're on another treasure hunt to the Magellanic Cloud. I talked to Mike, and he said something about the Catacombs of Cadarius. But he said they'd only just arrived there. They couldn't be back here much before Murcha, even if they left right away. And he didn't sound like he wanted to leave right away."

Kippy made a small noise with his lips. "I don't blame him. They're not there just to answer our call every time we have a whim to visit a huge alien space rock-thingy."

Everyone laughed.

"See," Ricky complained, "even Kip says it's a rock."

"I do not. I was being clever."

Ricky grunted. "Well, it didn't work."

Charlie raised a hand. "Now, now, children. Behave."

Kippy stuck out his tongue, but his eyes were bright with humor.

Ricky just looked annoyed. "So we have to wait a week, at least."

Charlie smiled. "Maybe not. I also talked to Ragal on Engris, and he said to give him a little time, and he'd call us back."

Ricky looked unconvinced. "What can he do?"

"Well...he said something about renting a ship."

Kippy suddenly swung on Charlie. "You didn't tell me that!"

"I wasn't going to until I heard back from Ragal. No use getting everyone's hopes up."

Adrian smiled. "You think Ragal is up to renting a ship? He's a little behind the times."

Charlie laughed. "I think Ragal could talk the socks off a marching soldier without causing him to miss a single step."

"He's very convincing, in his own sweet way," Kippy agreed. He looked happy. "I guess that would mean we'd get to see Casper again?"

Adrian immediately chuckled. "You're not prying those two apart. Ragal thinks he's a daddy now."

Charlie didn't totally agree with that. Ragal was protective of the newest addition to their group, but it was the attitude of someone deeply concerned for the welfare of a friend, and not parental in any way. Ragal had empathy in spades, and it was a characteristic of his species, one that had placed them in the roles of ambassadors and peacekeepers back in the days of the early empires.

"He said they were tired of knocking around the big villa we rented for them. Casper has already explored just about the whole of Engris, and Ragal said they need something new to do."

Kippy gave a little sigh. "I'd love to see them both again. I hope Ragal can come up with something." He frowned then. "Engris isn't exactly the kind of place you can rent a ship, though. Most people that just visit there have to leave again, and a lot of people that live there don't own ships because the never want to leave."

Ricky laughed. "If there's something there that flies, I'll bet Ragal gets it for us."

Charlie was of a similar mind. The alien born from Kippy's ancient ring was extremely resourceful, and in ways that Charlie still had yet to completely understand. That Ragal was concerned for the welfare of all those that entered his sphere of activity might suggest he would be a poor bargainer; and yet, he had shown them time and again that he was imbued with a gentle forcefulness that was really very hard to step around. Charlie liked and respected the tall, spindly man, finding him an amazing and positive addition to the rather wonderful crowd of people they had somehow managed to draw into their orbit.

Casper was still something of an enigma, a member of an as yet uncontacted alien species that seemed to be truly adept at hiding their presence from the large galactic powers that dominated this portion of the spiral arm. The few other members of Casper's race they had met had left a bad taste in their mouths, exhibiting an almost tribal fanatic fear and hatred of other species in their evinced goal of maintaining racial 'purity'. Their war against the new power users birthing among their people had more concrete roots: the ruling party feared that the new breed of young people arising with mysterious powers at their command would one day unseat them from the throne of power. They had moved to contain and euthanize those power users that were unmasked, and their fear had led them to chase Casper across light years of space to hide on the ancient, shielded battle world of Erenar, where Charlie and his friends had later found him. Their meeting with the party of Casper's people who were hunting him down had not gone well for the aliens.

And now Casper was with them, staying with Ragal at the villa they had rented on Engris. Murcha and Onglet, the two liberated Moth artificial intellects that ran the appropriated Moth scout ship now in the service of Charlie and his friends, made a fair living using the ship as a fast courier and transport, and the profits of that enterprise had been quickly building in a secure account at one of the banks on Engris. They now had at their disposal some millions of galactic credits, for which they had no use whatsoever while living on Earth. Renting the villa was a small expense, and it gave them a place to stay when they visited Engris, in addition to providing a home for Ragal and Casper.

Keerby, their new elf friend, had told them that Casper would one day be a key factor in saving the peoples of the galaxy from some awful fate, but that it would be a group effort that would win the day. That some mysterious power was at work bringing together all the correct talents and people needed for victory against this as yet unknown menace sometimes haunted Charlie's thoughts. The idea was on a scale he really couldn't comprehend, a chess game perhaps played across the breadth of the galaxy and millennia of time by forces or intellects as yet unknown. Charlie had meant to talk to Nicholaas about it, feeling that if anyone could get a line on such a game, it would be him. But the time had not been right yet for such a conversation, and the concept of greater forces at work still sometimes made Charlie nervous.

Kippy bumped against him, a look of concern on his face. "What are you worrying about?"

Charlie shook off the ghosts of doubt in his mind, and smiled. "Nothing in particular. I am always being reminded of the amazing group of people and powers we've come to know in just a few years time. Elves, aliens, super-science and scientific magic - we've developed quite a force here, if we ever need it."

Kippy frowned. "I don't really like that word. If it's a force we really have, it's a force for good."

"Of course. That's exactly what I meant. I'm just...sometimes it makes me wonder how we always manage to come up with the right solution to whatever dilemma we're facing."

"Oh. I know what you mean." His boyfriend smiled. "Like someone, somewhere, is watching our backs."

Charlie laughed. "Maybe. But I've also considered that our group is being put together somehow, with an end purpose in mind."

Kippy was quiet a moment, and then nodded. "I've felt that, too. And at a skwish level, where it's pretty hard to ignore."

Charlie was astounded. "You've never said anything about it."

"No." Kip sighed. "It's too hard to put into words. It's a feeling, Charlie, way down deep. How do you describe something you can only sense, and even then just barely?" He nodded. "I have always felt though, that if it's true that something is working with us here, that it's for a good purpose."

Charlie sighed at that. "That's good to know. I feel the same way, but I don't know why."

"Skwish. We're all supposed to have it, on some level. Maybe yours is telling you things, and you just don't realize it."

"Maybe." Charlie didn't feel like he had developed any mysterious powers lately, but you never knew how these things might present themselves, either. Sometimes, you didn't even know you had a zit on your face until you walked past a mirror.

A soft tone presented itself from the communicator on the nightstand, and Charlie immediately reached for it.

"That was fast," Kippy said, grinning.

"He's in no-time, remember," Charlie returned, lifting the communicator and activating it. Ragal's face sprang into being above the device, and the man looked quickly about the room. "The gang's all here, I see."

Charlie laughed. "No keeping these guys away."

The alien nodded. "I've rented a ship. We're inbound now."

Charlie blinked at that. "You're here already?"

"Just about. I needed to contact you and ask you where you wanted us to land."

Charlie grinned at the 'us'. "So Casper wanted to come, too?"

Ragal laughed, a pleasant sound. "Are you kidding? It would have been dangerous to my health to try to leave him behind."

Kippy sighed through a smile. "I'm glad he decided to come along."

Charlie felt the same way. Casper had been invited, of course, but they had not been sure he would want to come. Charlie felt certain that the small alien would not want to stay behind while Ragal went off on an adventure - but you never knew. The ability to assume was one of the banes of the human race.

But then he frowned, other thoughts coming to mind. "The ship you rented has a scat field, right? So it can't be detected? Can't you just land it in my backyard like Murcha does with Lollipop?"

"No, Charlie. Um...this ship is a little bigger than Lollipop."

Charlie's thoughts raced a moment, and then the obvious solution presented itself. "How about Myer's Hill? Where Pacha landed his ship to pick you up after Halloween?"

"I was going to mention that place, as I remember where it is. That would be fine. How long will it take you to get there?"

Charlie shrugged. "Fifteen minutes."

"That's perfect. We'll be there about then."

"Well...okay, then. See you soon."

Ragal's image smiled around at the boys, and then vanished. Charlie took the communicator and put it in the drawer of his nightstand for the time being. He could return it to where he normally stored it later.

Ricky stood and grabbed up his coat. "We go pretty close to my house on the way. I'll run ahead and get my dagger."

"Wait," Charlie said then, getting to his feet and going to his desk. After their last adventure, he had retained the four tiny blobs that were the translators provided by Mike. Kifta technology, they fit into the ear and became virtually invisible, and each offered the wearer an on-the-fly translation of all the galactic languages stored in its tiny organic nano library. Charlie grabbed them up and distributed them, and then tucked his own translator into his right ear.

"Okay, gotta run," Ricky said,turning to go after installing his own translator.

Adrian smiled. "You're not running anywhere without me." He jumped up and grabbed his coat, too. "We'll meet you guys at the corner before the road hits the woods, okay?"

Ricky grinned, leaned over and planted a noisy smooch on his boyfriend's cheek, and then headed for the door. Adrian sighed, tossed Charlie and Kip a last grin, and followed.

Kippy have a little groan of delight after they were gone. "Those two. They're so in love."

Charlie laughed, and leaned over and gave Kippy a noisy smooch on his cheek. "And we're not?"

Kippy huffed. "Of course we are. That's beside the point."

But Charlie could see the warm smile in Kippy's eyes, and it stayed there as they got their coats and headed out the front door.

It was a cold day, gray and a little frosty. But it was also quiet, with a sort of peace that only winter can bring to the land. The boys hastened out to the sidewalk and turned right, and headed down the block. There was no sign of Rick and Adrian, indicating that the boys had indeed been running when they'd left. Charlie and Kip maintained a decent pace, and soon neared the corner where Rick and Adrian had said they'd meet them. They could see the other two boys then, walking along the side street, nearing the corner, too.

Rick and Adrian got there first, and stood waiting. There was no sign of the alien vibratory dagger that Rick had purchased at the pirate market on Engris, so he must have it belted on beneath his jacket. That was the sensible place, really, because you just didn't walk the streets with a foot-long dagger in hand these days.

Ricky grinned at them as they met. "We ran our asses off."

Adrian smiled, peered behind his boyfriend, and then patted Ricky's butt. "I got news for you, Rick. It's just as cute as always."

Ricky's face reddened slightly, and Kippy laughed. "I've been telling him for years how nice a butt it is."

Charlie smiled, and gestured down the street. "We can compare butts later. I don't want to keep Ragal waiting, with them parked in some alien starship on Myer's Hill."

"It will be invisible," Kippy reminded, but took Charlie by the sleeve and pulled him into motion. The four boys headed off, and soon reached the path into the woods surrounding their destination.

At this time of year the path was clear of wandering underbrush, and the ground hard as a rock, and they ascended quickly and without any problems. When they emerged into the field atop the hill it was to find the browned stubble of hibernating grasses empty.

Kippy raised his hands above his head and waved them back and forth. "If they were here, they'd certainly see us, right?"

Charlie shrugged. "We might have gotten here before them. I'm sure --"

He broke off, feeling a sudden familiar sensation of displaced air nearby.

There was a small pop, and someone appeared beside them.

Kippy immediately released a happy squeak. "Keerby!"

The elf smiled, and allowed himself to be wrapped in a hug. Keerby was a teen elf just like Frit and Pip, a few inches shorter than Charlie and the others. Keerby had typically cute elf features, with dark hair, long eyelashes framing cheerful green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a smile that would melt butter. Everybody took a turn offering a hug, and then the elf stepped back, a large grin on his face. "Heck, that was worth the trip, all by itself!"

"Remember, you have a girlfriend back home," Charlie kidded, grinning.

Keerby blushed, but the smile didn't fade one bit. "Aw. You know what I mean."

Kippy stepped back to appraise the new arrival. "What happened to your suit? The one you bought on Engris, that you can change the color of to suit your mood?"

Keerby laughed, and then waved a hand over the brown shirt and slacks he wore now. "That was fun for a whole day. Maybe two. But it gets a little tiring, changing colors all the time." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "And I thought that when I set the dang thing it would stay on that color. But I found out that when I wasn't paying attention, it was changing color on its own. You know - with what I was feeling?" He looked embarrassed. "Sometimes it, telling on me."

The boys laughed, each able to imagine the trouble that might come with displaying your emotional state literally right on your sleeve. It reminded Charlie of the globes they had purchased at the pirate market on Engris, which changed color to display the holder's emotional state. Hard to hide what you were feeling when it was up there in lights!

"So," Charlie continued, patting the elf on his shoulder. "I presume you're here because you want to go along with us?"

"You're gonna need me," Keerby returned, nodding. "Frit and Pip wanted to come, too, but they're in the middle of mid-term exams. They weren't happy about that, but you know how school is."

"Do we ever," Ricky said, under his breath.

Adrian smiled at his boyfriend, and emitted an amused chuckle. "This is our last year. And it's certainly been fun so far. I'm going to miss it, actually."

Ricky winced, but returned a reluctant nodded. "It's not so bad, I guess."

Charlie looked at Keerby curiously. "You know where we're going?"

"Well...just that you're going out there." The elf waved a hand at the sky. "I just felt like you might need me to give you the time to do what you need to get done."

Charlie smiled. According to Frit and Pip, Keerby was a prodigy, already gifted in manipulating time, even though he barely had much of it under his own belt to speak of. Charlie knew about people that were naturals, and that the talents that went with that description showed no concern for age.

He nodded. "Glad to have you along." He let his gaze track upwards into the sky. "I just hope our ride gets here soon."

Keerby also looked at the sky, and then smiled. "Here they come now."

Charlie stared upwards, as did everyone, but could see nothing but gray sky. He opened his mouth to ask Keerby where...and then felt a strange sensation inside his body, as if his very tissues were vibrating to some as yet unknown force.

"Whoa," Ricky breathed. "Feel that?"

Charlie nodded, but before he could answer, a vessel appeared in the sky above them. It was close to the ground, no more than a hundred feet, and descending rapidly. At first Charlie was surprised by the size of the craft - it was easily twice the diameter of Lollipop - and then he was stunned at its shape. The craft was a flat ovoid, with four oddly bent projections that stuck out along each side of the craft, resembling the thin jointed legs of some tremendous insect. The ship was black, and the belly was covered in ridges that looked like the furrowed, jointed exoskeleton of a lobster tail.

"Ew," Kippy said softly, pushing himself up against Charlie. "Is that thing ugly, or what?"

"Or what," Charlie agreed, under his breath. They had seen a lot of different ship designs on their adventures into space, but this one was startlingly alien in appearance, suggesting a designer with a uniquely non-human perspective on aesthetics.

Adrian let out a soft whistle. "Wonder what sort of huge rock that thing crawled out from under?"

It did look like a beetle, Charlie thought, though no beetle found there on Earth. There was an aggressive stance to the craft that suggested a predator, and a mean one at that. But...looks could be deceiving, and they had already learned that appearances were only skin deep. For all they knew, this was someone's idea of grace and beauty, not to be tossed off lightly just because it didn't appeal to them.

"It is a little on the sinister side," Keerby agreed. "But that doesn't mean it won't do the job."

"Let's reserve judgment for now," Charlie advised. "It's a ship, and we need one."

The others nodded, but displayed varying levels of conviction. But that none of them would say or do the wrong thing, Charlie felt certain. Well...hopefully!

The craft hummed in tune with the vibrations they could feel within themselves, that sensation only finally moderating as the ship touched down on the field and went silent. Rick looked around nervously, his eyes touching upon the several paths that led to other parts of the neighborhood. "I hope no one is up here hanging out, or anything."

Charlie shook his head. "If the way this ship became visible to us is any indicator, the scat field doesn't extend very far beyond the hull. We can see the ship now because we're inside the scat field with it. But anyone farther away won't see it at all."

"So you say," Ricky returned, sounding unconvinced. But he waved a hand at the ship, as if to urge them forward. "That looks like a way in there, on the side."

A dark oval just above ground level did seem to be a doorway or lock of some kind, and they moved towards it as a group. Unlike Lollipop, which stood upon landing legs extruded from the hull when it was aground, this new vessel had landed directly on its belly. And yet, it had made no impression on the hard earth at all, suggesting that its touch was light, the mass of the vessel kept from pressing itself into the ground by a suspension of gravity by some method. All the alien empires manipulated gravity like humans did electricity, and the boys were used to this now.

They were a dozen feet away, the bulk of the strange vessel now towering above them, when the oval slid to one side, revealing someone within. It was a small creature, wearing a green one-piece suit and green boots, and two-legged, brown of skin, with two short arms, and a cone-shaped head that held two large eyes above a small, thin mouth now drawn wide in a smile.

"Casper!" Kippy ejected happily, running forward, his arms outstretched. The little alien raised his own arms, and Kippy leaned into the lock and swept him up into a hug. "It's so good to see you again!"

"Me, too!" Casper said, in his tiny voice. His big eyes smiled across Kippy's shoulder at the others, and Charlie grinned and stepped up to take his turn with a hug. Soon, greetings happily traded all around, Casper was set on the ground, where he smiled up at them. "I'm so glad to see you all again!"

"We're glad you came along," Charlie said. "We weren't sure you'd want to leave Engris."

"I love that place!" Casper returned. "But I've been everywhere I could get into legally. It was time for a vacation."

They all laughed at that. Even Engris, with all its intriguing ancient mysteries, could apparently get old.

"How goes the language lessons?" Kippy asked, patting Casper's shoulder fondly. Ragal had managed fairly quickly to get ninety-five percent of Casper's native tongue translated and installed into the library of their earpiece translators, and he and Casper had been hard at work on the rest while staying at the villa on Engris.

"We're pretty good now," Casper said, smiling. "Ragal said we're ninety-nine point nine percent there. My translator just updated yours, so you should have it all now."

Charlie briefly touched the nearly invisible insert in his right ear with a fingertip, marveling at the efficiency of the Kifta technology. "That's great. Good work!"

"Nice ship," Ricky said then, drily, waving a hand at the dark hull. "Where did you get it?"

Casper's big eyes widened. "You like it?" He leaned forward, and lowered his voice. "I think it's butt-ugly." He turned and looked up at the towering hull, and then gave a little shrug to his narrow shoulders. "But it got us here okay, so who can complain?" He turned and pulled himself up into the open hatch, and gestured for them to follow. "Come on inside. Ragal is in the control center."

Keerby touched Charlie's shoulder then. "I can fix time for you once we get inside, if you want. No use being away from home any longer than you need to."

Charlie had considered this expedition to be a day trip, and so had not considered how long they might be away from home. He'd figured six or eight hours, tops, for them to run out and look over Oumuamua, and that they'd be home in time for dinner. But...things did happen. Maybe having Keerby show up was more than just a happy coincidence, and having him adjust their time flow so that they would not be away from home for long had definite benefits.

"Sure. I think that's a good idea. Thanks."

The elf grinned. "Well, it's one reason I came. I had a feeling you'd need more time than you thought."

Charlie laughed. "And what was the other reason?"

"A chance to go out there again." Keerby pointed a finger at the sky. "I mean, I can teleport myself to the places I've been before, places are fun, too." There was a certain wanderlust in Keerby's eyes as he gazed skyward, one that Charlie understood only all too well. The lure of the unknown, the urge to explore, to find and see new people, places, and things. He knew that feeling himself.

He smiled, and patted Keerby's shoulder. "Works for me. Let's go."

It was a good step up to enter the lock, and Charlie took it carefully, not totally sure the interior gravity would be the same as outside. You just never knew quite what to expect with these alien starships. But the gravity within proved close enough not notice the difference, and soon they were all inside the lock with Casper. The door whispered closed, and they felt the faintest of sensation then, as if the ship might be rising again into the sky. But it was soon apparent they were in an elevator, when in a moment the back side of the lock opened, and they turned to find themselves before a large room.

Ragal was standing there, next to a large potted plant of some kind set against the wall; a tree, actually, and an ugly thing at that, as tall as the alien was himself. It rose upwards from a black cylindrical pot standing on the deck, a gnarled gray trunk spreading crooked gray branches midway up, each branch hung with one large, ugly brown fruit at the end. Charlie counted five of the wrinkled things, and couldn't help staring a moment before Ragal stepped towards him, his arms extended.

"Charlie! So good to see you again!" And then Charlie found himself enveloped in a quick hug, which was soon transferred to Kippy, and then Adrian, and then Ricky, and then Keerby. Charlie grinned, amazed all over again that the tall, spindly alien could seem to bend in places where he had no joints. Despite being a biped with the same number and general location of joints that a human possessed, it was almost as if the alien's bones had the ability to flex, too, giving the hug Charlie received an almost octopus-like quality to its grip. He could sense Ragal's great strength in that hug, another fact that would seem to run counter to his almost skinny appearance. Ragal's ancestry was reptilian, not mammalian, and his genial appearance made it easy to forget he was the product of an alien and exotic biology.

Kippy had gotten a perhaps slightly extra-special hug, his bond with Ragal and the ancient ring that had given him his rebirth making the two close. Charlie's boyfriend now stood next to Ragal, looking carefully about the large room, and finding them alone.

"So," he said in a whisper, "what's with the gruesome tree?"

Charlie heard Keerby take a sharp breath, and Ragal's eyes widened, just as his hand rose to cover the smile that spread across his features. At the same moment, one of the branches on the tree shuddered, and suddenly jerked one of the large ugly fruits upwards, to stop directly in front of Kippy's startled face. A pair of yellow cat's eyes opened, and a jagged mouth grimaced, showing a fair number of pointy white teeth inside.

"You ain't exactly no prize yourself, sweetheart."

Kippy squeaked in shock and jerked back, right into Ragal's ready hands, which grasped him and stabilized his plunge away from the tree.

"Don't be alarmed," Ragal said, still trying not to laugh at the look on Kippy's face. "These are the Rootar. They're the, um, the crew of the ship."

The other branches moved now, lofting the other fruits at their ends, and more eyes opened, and more mouths spoke.

"Didja hear this bum?" said one. "He said we was less than appealing."

Another wrinkled orb turned to look at the neighbor that had spoken, and emitted a slightly sinister chuckle. "You ain't much to look at. I don't blame him for sayin'!"

"I'm your brother!" the first one said, sounding annoyed. "We look the same!"

"Only by an accident of genetics!"

"Stop arguing, ya clunks!" said a third fruit, now clearly a head like the others. In fact, now that Charlie had a really good look at them, he was reminded of the tiny shrunken heads he had seen in old horror movies involving voodoo and the curse of the undead. Except each of these heads was as large as a human head!

"Shaddap!" a fourth head said loudly, and turned towards Charlie and the others. "Don't mind my boys, gents. They don't get out much, and their manners leave a little to be desired." The branch dipped once, in an almost nodding fashion. "I'm Captain Neema, and you're aboard the Ishkatar, out of Aroostook City, a port out beyond the Horsehead. You fellas make yourselves comfortable, you hear? Relax, look around - ya got the run of the ship. Er...just don't touch none of the baubles, okay? And don't try to open any locked doors, see? We don't want no accidents around here. Ya break somethin', ya bought it!"

The alien's voices were plainly issuing forth in some harsh tongue that was beyond comprehension, and what they were hearing were the translations in their Kifta earpieces. But those translations sounded common. Charlie turned to look at Ragal, almost in shock. "Why do they sound like that?" he whispered, even then knowing that the heads could hear him. "They sound like gangsters out of some old movie."

The heads all broke into laughter, and Charlie felt his face grow warm. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings," he said immediately.

Ragal was all smiles. "They're not easily offended, Charlie, believe me. And I think they're just having some fun with you." A patient look came onto his features. "Kifta translators are actually extremely good at determining nuances of cultural identity in the original tongue, and relating them to similar identities in the tongue of the listener."

"Listen to that!" hooted one of the heads. "Fancy, schmancy!"

Again, all the heads on the tree laughed, and Captain Neema offered up an almost frightening smile. "We're just funnin' with you gents. We don't usually hire out just to carry passengers, but your boy Ragal here was so persuasive that we caved. Now we're ready to be off on the hunt." The Captain's head moved closer to Charlie, his expression somehow eager. "So what's this thing we're chasin'? Any loot to be had, d'ya think?"

Casper, who had been standing quietly nearby, watching the proceedings with a big smile on his face, suddenly tittered. "Here we go!"

"What?" Captain Neema bobbed back, looking far from embarrassed. "Hey, it's an honest question, ain't it? I just wanna know if there's any swag to be had. We ain't makin' a huge profit on this run, I can tell ya!" The captain's eyes fixed accusingly on Ragal. "Your man here is a sharp negotiator. And me'n the boys gotta eat!"

Charlie shook his head slowly, still trying to grasp this sudden turn in the events. They knew Ragal had gotten them a ship...but not that the crew would be along for the ride. And, especially, not this crew!

Ragal apparently saw the doubt in Charlie's eyes, and leaned a little closer. "I did rent this vessel on Engris, remember?" He smiled. "And Engris does seem to draw visitors from all across the, um, moral spectrum."

Charlie digested that, and then nodded. "So these guys sound like thugs, because they're --?"

"Smugglers," said one of the heads, somehow managing to convey pride. "Lowlifes."

"Crooks," agreed another head, sounding equally self-satisfied.

"Traders in antiquities, mostly," interjected yet another head hastily, while frowning at his crewmate. "You're a bore, Diek."

"Don't get hoity toity with me, Qurank!" countered Diek. "I'm bein' honest here. The lad asked what we were, and I told him. Gunrunners, schmeep traffickers, dealers in gems and trinkets of shady origin, and sellers o' things found in places that some people don't want others lookin'. All brought to Engris to be sold." He sighed happily. "It's a good life."

"But we're decent smugglers," pointed out Qurank, quickly. "We don't steal the stuff, we just buy it cheap and move it fast. And we don't hurt people, you know? Engris wouldn't let us trade there if we were real louses."

Ricky started laughing then. Adrian stared at his boyfriend a moment, and then smiled at Charlie. "We're in trouble now!"

"I like these guys! " Ricky said in explanation, holding up his hands, as if to say the answer was obvious. "They're pirates!"

"Well, duh," said Diek, with a horrifying smile. "Took ya long enough!"

The heads on the tree all snickered, and Captain Neema thrust himself forward again, aiming this time at Ricky. "Smile when you say that!" But even his strangely creepy face managed to convey his sense of humor, and Charlie could only laugh in response.

Adrian turned to Kippy. "What's your skwish say about these guys?"

Charlie's boyfriend was smiling now, himself. "Well...that they're okay, I guess. Amazingly."

"That's what I get, too." Adrian turned to his boyfriend. "And we already know that Rick likes them. And that Ragal hired them. Even Casper seems to like them." He turned again to look questioningly at the little alien.

"I do!" Casper acknowledged.

"Those are pretty good endorsements!" Adrian pointed out.

Kip shrugged, sighed, and smiled at Charlie. "I'm good. What do you think?"

Charlie looked around at all the eyes on him, and saw that even the Rootar looked like they were waiting for his word. Charlie looked up at Ragal a last time, noted the man's smile, and then smiled himself.

"Well, I guess...I guess we're going on a trip!"

"Hmm. That looks like the one." Captain Neema highlighted a dot on the display, and all eyes turned to examine it. "Shouldn't take long to get there at all."

"You sure this guy is manipulating time?" Qurank asked Charlie, casting a doubtful look at Keerby. "If we're off galactic time, why don't my instruments detect the shift?"

"The interfaces of our time frame with the exterior time frame include all the proper translation protocols," Keerby explained patiently. "So there is no detectable shift in the electromagnetic spectrum as it crosses from one time frame to the other. It's a what you see is what you get environment."

"Get him!" Beel hooted, shaking from side to side on his branch. "Power users give me the willies!"

"Sorry," Keerby returned, smiling. "But you asked."

"It don't matter!" Captain Neema grated, casting warning looks at his crew. "The less time we spend doing this, the higher our profit in the end. So shut your yaps and pay attention to your instruments, ya hear?"

"Sure thing, skipper," Beel replied, chuckling. "Just expressin' my opinion."

"Yes, father," Qurank said acidly.

All the heads on the tree except the captain's laughed harshly.

The captain emitted an all too human sigh, and turned to Charlie. "Ya see what I have to put up with? Is this any way to make a livin'? I ask ya."

They were in the actual pilot center of the Ishkatar now, which consisted of a circular room with a circular console in the center of it, and a continuous display that ran all the way around the outer wall of the room, showing off the space around the ship. There was a break in one arc of the circular center console, through which the Rootar could enter. This was accomplished by floating. The black cylinder that the boys had first mistaken for a pot proved to be a locomotive device, obviously harnessing gravity as its motivational force, which conveyed the tree that was the central body of the Rootar wherever they wanted to go.

Diek had told them the 'tree' had once had viney legs at the bottom, its natural form of movement, but that they had been lost in 'an altercation on the Plombanomba Sufrinym firk-station orbiting Ructival', wherever - and whatever - that happened to be. In the hours that Charlie and his friends had been aboard Ishkatar, they had learned more than a little about their hosts. The Rootar conglomerate that owned the ship was, quite literally, a family tree, with Captain Neema as head of the family and major shareholder at fifty percent; and his four sons, Diek, Qurank, Stropa, and Beel, equal shareholders in their fifty percent of the operation, and acting crew. With the tree positioned in the center of the circular console, each head had access to the controls that were a part of his duty. There seemed to be no controlling artificial intelligence there, and the level of technology seemed down a notch or two from what Charlie was used to on Kifta and Moth vessels. But the bare truth seemed to be that Ishkatar was just as capable of getting around the galaxy as any of its peers.

As the ship got ready to get underway, everyone had loosened up, and the conversation had become interesting. They traded information about each other, and Charlie filled in the Rootar on what they were looking for. Captain Neema had frowned at that, and made his head to bob side to side. "A rock? Are you serious?"

"Well, we don't know exactly what it is," Charlie had countered. "That's the whole point of this trip."

Charlie had brought along the orbital data for Oumuamua, which he had picked up online, and it only took a short time for Qurank to translate that into data that the ship could use to perform the search. But while that search was in progress they continued to talk, and Charlie was soon coming to see why Ragal had picked the Rootar for this voyage. They were a rowdy lot, rough around the edges, but that they seemed intent on providing good service for their fee seemed clear. And, they had come from Engris, which was the best judge of character in the galaxy today. If that artificial world had let them land and do business, then surely they could be trusted.

Well, trusted as far as one could trust Rootar pirates, anyway!

Charlie mentioned this idea to Ragal, who gave a quiet laugh. "Actually, theirs was the only ship available. But I have come to like them."

At one point in the conversation Kippy asked, in all innocence, if there were ever girl Rootar on the family tree, and had received a shocked group stare from their hosts.

"On the same limbs as the men?" Diek asked, sounding astounded. "There's a recipe for disaster!"

"What a nasty idea!" Qurank had followed with, shaking his head from side to side. "I've heard tell of such idiocies, mostly from among the Pintar Rebels in the Quotha Realm. But you won't find that here!"

"Indeed not!" Captain Neema bellowed. "Not on my ship! The female tree stays at home, where it belongs!. We may be pirates, but we have some common sense!"

Kippy looked at Charlie, and laughed. "That seems rather final."

"We just were curious," Charlie said to the Rootar, trying not to laugh. "We didn't mean to be offensive."

"It's not offensive," Beel returned, "it's just outlandish. No sane Root would travel about as we do, doing the things we do, carrying the family seeds along with him. Why, one bad encounter with a vessel of superior firepower, or a hostile planetary defense battery, and the whole genetic line could be lost!"

Charlie blinked at that. "Oh. it's not just that you don't want the females along?"

"Are you kidding?" Stropa asked, clearly amazed. "Something might happen to them!"

Kippy's eyes held some mischief as he pursued the topic. "So...what? They like, sit back at home, and knit or something?"

The whole tree laughed.

"They're in charge!" Diek said then.

"The bosses!" Stropa added, right on his heels.

"They do the planning, we do the running." Qurank explained, more patiently.

"It's a partnership," Captain Neema offered, though sounding a little pained at the idea. "Let's talk about something else, okay?"

Ragal pointed at the highlighted dot in the display, and turned to Captain Neema. "You were saying that that was our objective?"

The captain seemed relieved to return to the business at hand. "Looks to be, I'd say."

Kippy frowned at the map of the solar system that appeared in one part of the display, and shook his head. "I thought this thing had passed by two years ago, and that is was traveling fast, as in miles per second." He waved a hand at the display. "That dot is still right here in the neighborhood."

Charlie smiled at that, and peered at the display. The tiny dot was exiting the solar system, moving away above the plane of the ecliptic, but was just as yet reaching a point above the orbit of Uranus. "It's a big neighborhood," he told his boyfriend.

"That it is," Captain Neema agreed. He swiveled his head and looked at Qurank. "This here object is on the course the lad provided, right?"

"Yeah, Cap'n. Right ascension 23 hours, fifty-three minutes; declination plus twenty-one degrees, twenty-nine minutes, fifty seconds. Heading into Pegasus. That's in the local lingo, and from the third planet perspective. That be our target, alright."

"How long to get there?" Charlie asked. They had left Earth and were currently moving through space out beyond the moon. The vista on the circular display was simply gorgeous to behold.

Captain Neema gave a coarse laugh. "Well --"

He waved his head at some controls on his console, and the circular visual displays about the room all briefly blinked to black, and then filled once again with stars. Ahead of them a small speck appeared, and was growing even as they watched.

"How does now strike ya?" the captain asked. "Easiest money we ever made!"

But Charlie's eyes were fastened on the display. Ahead of the Ishkatar, the object that had become known on Earth as Oumuamua grew larger. Even at this distance, and in the lesser light from the distant sun, the reddish tinge of the object was distinct. Even before it became fully clear in the display, Charlie could tell by the way the light struck his eye that the object was tumbling, very slowly indeed, end over end as it moved through space.

Kippy suddenly moved to stand beside Charlie, and took hold of his arm. "Oh, Charlie. I'm feeling...I'm feeling something strange."

"Whoa," Adrian breathed, moving closer to the display. "What the hell?"

Casper had also closed with the display, coming to stand next to Adrian, his eyes intent on the object therein. "That's...I'm sensing something very unusual here."

But it was Keerby who made the announcement, as he came to stand by Charlie's other side. "It's alive."

Charlie was shocked, and immediately turned to the elf. "You're sure?'

"Oh, yes. That is a living thing." Keerby shook his head. "Not alive like we are, but alive, nonetheless."

"It's old," Adrian said, shaking his head.

"Very old," Kippy agreed, squeezing Charlie's arm again. "So old it's scary to feel it."

"Alive," Charlie repeated, still unable to grasp the idea. "How is that possible?"

"Oh, there be all sorts of things that live in the vacuum of space," Captain Neema put in then. "The Norila of the Habadasa system; the Mitrious at Kuplamoret; the Ambura-Klatha, in the Guern'tha system. Just to name a few."

"But they all live in-system," Qurank pointed out. "Around the methane giants, mostly. They ain't soloing about the universe like this one seems to be doing."

"No." The captain's yellow eyes watched the enlarging object in the display, and his head bobbed uncertainly on its branch. "None are the size of this one, either."

"Could be a real rarity then," Beel put in. "Might be valuable, what'dya think?"

Charlie felt his hackles rise at that. "If it's alive, it deserves to be left alone." He looked pointedly at the head on its limb.

All the heads laughed raucously.

"Relax," Captain Neema said. "He means the knowledge of this here critter, not the thing itself. It's a capital crime to steal animals from their home environment, in case you didn't know."

"And we're nice pirates, remember," put in Qurank, a note of humor in his voice.

"What if it's not an animal?" Kippy said then, his eyes still on Oumuamua.

"Then to mess with it would be assault and kidnapping, and that's almost as bad." Captain Neema turned to Strop, on the branch next to his. "Make a detailed recording of the sensory data on this thing, lad. We may be able to sell the log later."

"Right, skipper."

Charlie turned to watch Kippy, who seemed enthralled by the view on the screen. "Do you think it might not be just an animal?"


"Me, too," Adrian said, extending an arm towards Ricky, without taking his eyes off the display. Rick came to stand beside him, and put one arm around his boyfriend.

"Me, three," Keerby said, closing his eyes. "The thing's dreaming."

"It's asleep," Casper agreed. "Wow."

Ragal was also watching the screen. "This may be a very exciting discovery. We have to learn more about it."

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, trying to sense anything unusual, anything different inside himself, that might indicate he was also getting some sort of impressions from the distant object. But nothing came to him, no sense of alien life, old age, or anything else. He opened his eyes. "I don't feel anything at all. I guess my skwish is on vacation today."

Ricky smiled at him. "Don't feel bad about it, Charlie. It still seems like a rock to me, too."

They were close now - close enough to see more detail. Charlie was amazed at how closely the object resembled the artist's conception he had seen online. The sculpted look was there, alright; except now, rather than looking like a made thing, it resembled the bilateral symmetry one might find in the products from nature's own kitchen of life. He was put in mind of whales back home, except that this thing didn't really resemble a whale in any way. There was no fluked tail, no eyes, no mouth. The thing was tapered similarly at both ends, and slightly narrower in the middle, yet still immense as they neared it. It was obviously larger than Ishkatar, and as the captain drew his vessel to a stop nearby Oumuamua, Charlie really got a sense of its size for the first time.

He looked over at Qurank, who seemed to sense his question. "A little less than eight hundred meters long, in your counting. Ninety meters, on average, in width along its length. It's got several motions in addition to its linear course through space. It's tumblin' nose over tail, very slowly - too slowly to see - with about a seven-and-a-half hour period. It also spins slowly along its longitudinal axis. And there's also a slow third rotational motion along another axis, that will eventually present all sides of the thing to us." He examined his instruments a moment, and nodded. "It's moving along at about 28.4 kilometers per second, and on an outbound line approximately twenty degrees above the plane of the planetary orbits."

Charlie smiled. "Thanks." He winked. "You can sound like a real egghead when you want to, I see."

Qurank belted out a guffaw. "Calling me names won't get you anything!" But that the Root seemed pleased at the compliment was plain.

"What's it's composition?" the captain asked.

Beel's head waggled on its limb. "Got a fairly deep layer of carbon on the surface, Skipper. Beneath that is a fairly standard asteroid mix of rock and metals...except it reads funny, like there is an energy source of some kind in the stone. And...Great Porlum's left foot! I'm detecting artificial constructs within the object. There's what looks to be natural spaces within the body that have been filled with...hmm...rooms galore. Living quarters, it looks like. And I'm seein' power generation facilities, atmosphere production and recycling...and this looks like a very large agro center, and a biomass production and reclamation area. There's even what looks like a docking facility. It's amazin'! There's a whole lotta stuff inside this thing." The head looked up at Oumuamua, floating in the display. "It reads like a space station or something."

Again Charlie was stunned, and he and Kippy stared at each other. "Is anyone aboard?" he asked of Beel, without turning.

"Don't look like it. The place is a space-equivalent vacuum inside. Power generation is barely detectable. No signs of life at all."

"Abandoned, possibly," Ragal mused. "Or perhaps never even inhabited."

"Why?" Kippy asked. "Why build all that stuff inside, and then never use it?"

Ragal nodded. "We may never know. But I suspect you're right. Abandoned would be the better guess."

"The tech level is pretty low," Beel added then, watching his instruments."Level two fusion source for power, almost inoperative now. Maybe third or fourth generation nano-circuitry intelligence modules operating the equipment. Not even close to sentient. Some pretty big stasis chambers, all first generation." He turned on his branch to look at Captain Neema. "Suggests a pre-starflight culture."

"Budget star travel?" Stropa wondered.

"Perhaps someone's long-term method of reaching the stars," Ragal mused. "The stasis chambers suggests storage of the crew for the journey between stars, with the living quarters to support them each time Oumuamua actually entered a star system."

Charlie blinked at that. "What...every fifty thousand years? Oumuamua just isn't moving fast enough for realistic star travel."

Qurank grunted. "The calculated incoming velocity I've got is within five kilometers per second of the mean galactic velocity of the stars that lie within about eighty light years of your solar system. But it doesn't match the relative velocity of any of the closest stars. That kind of means its origin isn't in the local star group." He looked up at them. "It came from a long way off."

"Might not have been a choice for them that built these inner habitats," Captain Neema suggested. "Maybe they had to leave home for some reason. What's a few hundred thousand years of stasis for a chance at life somewhere else?"

"Well, it entered our star system," Ricky pointed out. "So where are they?"

"Suppose they were colonists," Adrian offered. "And they finally reached a place they liked, and got off?"

Ragal smiled. "That's a very good bit of thinking. You may be correct."

"The state of their fusion source says a lot," Beel put in. "For it to be down to the levels it's displayin' now, it would have to have been goin' a very long time. Looks to me like, between hibernation cycles and power ups, about nine hundred thousand local years. The fuel injectors are nearly depleted."

"What about Oumuamua itself?" Charlie asked. He turned to Keerby. "You said it's asleep?"

"Uh huh. What we would call sleep, anyway. It may be something else here, though. This seems kind of layered, in a way we couldn't manage in our minds. It could even be the normal state of Oumuamua's sentience. It may not ever be fully awake and aware like we are. It could be that its interface with the universe is always on the level of a dream."

"That's the way it feels to me," Casper agreed. "Dreams have different levels of awareness. I sense that Oumuamua's awareness is highly flexible."

A faint tremor went through the ship then, and a light blinked on Diek's console. "Fluctuation in the object's gravitational field, skipper."

"A faint increase in velocity, too," Qurank added.

Stropa released a faint, whistling sound. "Looks like this thing can create inverse gravity fields, skipper. It's adding to its velocity by repelling from the field of the local star."

"Hmm." Captain Neema nodded at the display. "Same way the Norila move about among the gas giants in their system."

"Yessir. Exactly."

"You mean it propels itself using gravity?" Charlie asked, feeling yet another surge of excitement. This was so cool!

Stropa bounced in acknowledgement on his branch. "Yep. 'Cept here, it looks to just be maintaining velocity, keeping your star from robbing it of momentum."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm. "We need to go and see what's there." His gaze was insistent, his jaw set firmly.

Charlie watched him a moment, and then turned to Captain Neema. "Do you have a small ship aboard? Like a lifeboat, or something?"

"Uh...we do have a couple of shuttles, sure." The head's eyes looked interested. "You plan to board yon behemoth?"

Charlie looked at Kippy again, and smiled at his boyfriend's insistent nod. "I guess so." He turned to Ragal. "Don't you think it's a good idea?"

"I do." The tall alien turned to Captain Neema. "You have production facilities aboard? Can you manufacture vacuum suits for us?"

Captain Neema laughed. "Sure. That'll cost you extra, though."

"I wouldn't have it any other way. Charlie, what are your thoughts here?"

"Well --" Charlie looked around the control center. "I don't think we should all go."

Captain Neema guffawed. "We won't run off and leave ya. I promise."

Keerby patted Charlie's sleeve. "I could get us all back home, even if they did."

Qurank grumbled. "We won't leave you gents, okay?"

Charlie smiled. "I wasn't thinking of that, so much, as I was that if we get into trouble over there, someone needs to be the rescue party."

"I'd want one of my boys to go along with you, anyway," the captain said. "You gents ain't exactly impressed me as hardened spacers. Someone needs to keep you outta trouble."

Charlie felt surprise at that. "I didn't know any of you could, uh, separate from the others."

"Oh, sure," Diek said. "The tree's just for family stuff, you know? We can get around on our own if we need to do it."

"One of us should go along," Qurank agreed. "These boys don't strike me as the explorer types."

All the heads laughed, and Charlie grinned. "Oh, we've been around, a little."

Captain Neema produced another frightening grin. "Uh huh. Qurank? You wanna do the honors of babysittin', accompanying our good clients on their visit to this...thing?"

"Sure, Skipper. Be my pleasure."

"You should at least take me," Keerby insisted. "I can bring you back to the ship if something happens."

The heads on the tree exchanged glances, and Diek jiggled a little on his branch. "You said that a moment ago, too. How can you get them back?

"I'm a teleporter, too."

"Power users give me the willies!" Beel said again. But this time he chuckled, as if the idea was growing on him a little.

"Well, ain't you just somethin'!" Captain Neema said, looking Keerby over anew. "Any other talents inside there that we ought to know about?"

The elf smiled. "A few. But you don't need to know about them unless we need to use them."

The heads all laughed at that, but Charlie could detect a slight trace of unease among the humor. The Rootar were definitely respectful of power users, and having Keerby about would go a long way towards keeping the pirates honest in their dealings. Yet the sense that Charlie had about their hosts was that no coercion would be needed to keep them in check. The Rootar struck him as people that honored a contract, and Charlie had come to feel that he was a pretty good judge of character for things like that.

Listen to your heart, for it is seldom wrong.

He smiled, wondering where that thought had come from, but shook it off, and nodded at Qurank. "Well, if you'll help us get outfitted, we can get going."

"Sure thing."

There was a soft whirring sound at the base of the console, and a drawer popped open there. A ring made of dark metal arose from it, quickly positioned itself beneath Qurank, and with a tiny slurping sound the head detached from the branch and settled comfortably into the ring.

"Come on, follow me."

Kippy grinned, and pulled on Charlie's arm. "Who's going?"

Charlie looked around at the expectant gazes of his friends, and could only sigh. "Qurank, is there room in your shuttle for all of us?"

"Yeah. We'll take the larger one. No problem."

Charlie looked about at his friends, and smiled. "We'll all go."

Ricky immediately poked Adrian with his elbow, and laughed. "Told ya."

"If ya run into any trouble, we'll be right here," Captain Neema said. "We've got a couple of inspection drones that we can send over if ya need a hand. They're pretty well stuffed with what it takes to get the job done."

"He means they're armed to the teeth," Stropa added, sounding happy at the idea.

Charlie nodded, and started after Qurank. "Come on then, guys. Let's go see what there is to see."

The shuttle was more than large enough for all of them, as promised. It was also able to inspect their dimensions and provide proper seating for them, something Charlie had come to expect of galactic technology. The market for virtually any product was much larger when it had the ability to adapt itself to the user.

The space suits provided for them by Captain Neema were not quite as light or comfortable as the suits they had stored away on their own vessel, Lollipop, but it was plain they would do the job just as well. The suits themselves were one-piece, and put on by simply stepping into the feet and pulling them up to allow the arms to slide into the sleeves. The closure was some sort of bond at the molecular level, and just pressing the two sides of the opening together sealed it. The helmet was a clear bowl, that also sealed itself to the collar of the suit. There were no bulky air tanks or cumbersome environmental management system, like Earthly space suits had. The whole thing conformed itself comfortably to the body of the wearer, and was scarcely more noticeable than walking about in a set of heavyweight sweats.

As they neared the surface of Oumuamua, Charlie was once again awed by the size of the thing. It now had the appearance of a great wall suspended before them, one textured like rock, but with an oddly reddish tinge to the otherwise dark gray coating that seemed to cover it everywhere. They were slowly circling Oumuamua while moving back and forth along its length, while a battery of sensors recorded everything there was to learn about the visitor.

"The red coloring's from irradiation," Qurank told them. "Cosmic rays, over millions of years of time. This thing is pretty ancient, way older than the constructions that're inside of it." The Rootar was studying his instruments from his perch before the main display as the shuttle worked its way down the length of Oumuamua. "A lot of this thing is just rock, with a fair amount of organics mixed in. But there's a lot of metal, in the bulk, too, and it's displaying some pretty odd readings. Magnetic fields out of proportion to the size of the inclusions, electrical fields that seem to link the chunks of metal together. I ain't never seen anything like this."

"It's Oumuamua," Kippy said, staring at the screen. "The living part, anyway."

Qurank turned a puzzled stare on Charlie's boyfriend. "How'd you know that?"

Kippy shrugged. "It just seems obvious to me." He looked over at Adrian. "How about you?"

"Yeah. I think you're right. What I feel is spread all around inside this thing."

Qurank turned back to his instruments. "Even though it's put together like a chunk of rock, it's awfully regular, and the organics are really uniformly distributed. If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a made thing."

"Could it have formed naturally like this?" Charlie asked.

"You're asking me?" The tone of Qurank's voice indicated the Rootar would have shrugged if he'd had shoulders. "I'm beyond my experience here, and there ain't nothin' like this in the files."

Ragal nodded at that. "I think we're a bit beyond what was known about life of this sort in my time, too. And yet, I feel certain that this is a living thing in its entirety, not just the odd fields within it."

"Never heard of living rocks, before," Qurank mumbled.

Ragal laughed. "In life like myself, and the humans here - and our friend Casper - the endoskeletons consist of a matrix of fibrous protein and an inorganic compound made mostly of calcium and phosphate. It provides a structure to which are attached the muscles that allow us movement. And yet, these skeletons have definite stone-like properties, despite being alive. Oumuamua is quite interesting in its composition, in that it combines a carbon-rich with both a metallic and a silicate composition. The uniformity of the mix seems wholly unnatural to what little I know of such things, and the electromagnetic fields at play here seem to have no reason for existence."

Ricky looked interested in that. "Could it be that this thing is alive, but still that someone made it?"

Casper spoke up in his small voice then. "If you believe the universe is the work of a creator, then we are all made things."

Kippy turned to stare at him. "Are you referring to religion?"

The little alien laughed, sounding so much like the squeak of a hamster that Charlie couldn't help smiling. "Not like you are. My people have believers in the idea that the universe was laid out with a set of rules, and then left alone to grow on its own. But the rules provided for life, and so all living things were created."

Charlie nodded. "I'm familiar with that idea." He shook his head, and turned back to gaze at the display. "I don't think it matters just now how Oumuamua came to be. None of us are the types of scientists that we'd need to get a better handle on this. Maybe someone can figure out more from Qurank's data, later."

Ragal laughed. "Always the practical one, aren't you, Charlie?"

"Well, I have to say I'm more interested in the stuff that someone built inside Oumuamua at the moment, than I am in how Oumuamua herself came into being."

Kippy gave a delighted laugh. "'Herself'? You think it's a girl, Charlie?"

Charlie gave Kip a fond poke with his elbow. "No. It's just that something this big, the closest I can get to to in my mind is a ship, like one of those monster cruise ships. 'Her' just comes naturally, I guess." He waved a hand at the display. "Somehow, I don't think gender or sex is involved here at all."

"I would tend to agree," Ragal said. "And I am also interested in what lies inside. Qurank? Have you located a way to the interior yet?"

"Yeah. There's multiple openings around this baby, all of which seem to have some sort of docking area. We're coming up on one now."

It turned out to be farther than Charlie expected, as it was a full minute before a natural looking gash opened in the side of Oumuamua and gave them a tantalizing glimpse within. But the light was insufficient to get more than an impression of what was below, and it was not until Qurank lit a powerful array of external lights and pointed them down into the gash that they could really see what was there.

Charlie gasped along with the others at what was revealed. Within the gash was a smooth white wall, one fitted with line after line of large ports, all of which were open to space. Within the ports they could see bays of some sort, with the strange shapes of mysterious constructions lining the walls.

"I think we're inverted, relative," Qurank said then. "Let me flip us over."

The scene in the display rolled lazily one-hundred and eighty degrees, the lights playing about within the ports as the shuttle turned on her back. The scenes steadied then, and what looked like cradles of some kind could now be seen on the floors of the ports. They moved down the line of open doorways, until they came to a larger port, also open, in which a smooth expanse of deck could be seen inside.

"More than big enough for us," the Rootar said. "I'll take us inside."

Keerby, standing near Charlie, turned to face him. "I'm going to return us to normal galactic time, Charlie. We should be in the here and now to enter Oumuamua."

Charlie nodded, not about to question the elf on time. "Do it."

Qurank, who had turned to watch them, let his eyes briefly go from side to side, as if watching and waiting for something spectacular to happen.

Keerby grinned. "I'm done. Take us in."

The Rootar looked skeptical, but wheeled about again and moved back and forth in front of his console. "Okay, gents. Here we go."

There was a faint flicker of light, and a tiny image of Captain Neema appeared above Qurank's console. "No sign of active defenses," he said. "Still, you be careful, son."

Qurank cast a smile back at his passengers, but his voice sounded businesslike as he responded. "Gotcha, Cap'n. Wouldn't want anything to happen to our passengers."

There was a grunt over the com. "Or their thick-headed pilot," Neema shot back. The tiny image faded out again.

Qurank chuckled, and Charlie grinned along with Kippy and the others. Rootar family ties appeared to be stronger than they had first imagined!

The shuttle entered the large port, turned slowly about its center axis, and settled to the deck with the nose pointing back out into space.

"Quite a place," Qurank said, watching his instruments. "Just finished a full-spectrum scan. It seems that nothing is actually attached to Oumuamua. Looks like they built all these interiors in place, and then shot some kind of expanding and insulating foam into the spaces around the complex. It hardened, and anchored the complex inside by simply filling the entire open space between and around it."

"What does that mean, exactly?" Adrian asked.

Ricky smiled at him, and gave him a gentle squeeze. "That whoever built this place went out of their way not to harm Oumuamua."

"That's right," Qurank agreed. "And all the other complexes in other open areas are the same."

"So they're not linked," Charlie asked. "They didn't drill or bore through the rock to connect them?"

"No." Qurank moved the light array outside their shuttle, and settled it on a large opaque tube that emerged from the white wall that held the ports, somewhere down below them, and headed out to the surface, there to curve around the lip of the gash and disappear. "I'd say that's a transportation system, that links this area to the next one. It's colored the same as the surface, and not easy to see."

Kippy nodded at that. "That kind of says that the people that built this place were aware that Oumuamua was more than just a rock in space."

That was exactly what Charlie thought. And it said a lot for whoever had once been here. Like that they were perhaps not power users, like Keerby and Casper, but certainly sensitive in some way, like Kip and Adrian. Sensitive enough to know that they had something entirely different here than just another asteroid.

But for now, other matters pressed. "Can we go out and look around?" he asked.

"Don't see why not," Qurank returned. "Nothing much seems to be runnin'. There's a few lights on at a low level, but no other systems seem to be active at this time. No wonder we couldn't detect these installations until we were right on top of Oumuamua. The activity level here is barely above none." He revolved to look at them. "Still advise that we be careful."

"You're coming, too, I take it?"

"Har! Think I'm gonna miss out on this? Let's get movin'!" A bubble of tinted light appeared about Qurank's head, and the ring holding him floated towards the lock of the shuttle. "Follow me, gents. Visitors will please mind the stairs. Don't want no bumps and bruises!"

Kippy laughed, and tugged at Charlie's arm. "Come, on. I can't wait to see this!"

Charlie grinned and allowed himself to be pulled along, feeling the glow of his boyfriend's exuberance. Kippy approached most things pretty sensibly, but moments of simple wonder seemed to capture him every time. And he never failed to transmit that feeling of wonder to Charlie.

Ragal joined up with them, Casper right behind. Keerby was talking to Rick and Adrian as those three joined the others in the large airlock.

"I'm telling you, it knows we're here," Keerby was saying, his voice now coming over the common channel that connected everyone's helmets.

Charlie turned to look at the elf. "Oumuamua? It knows we're here?"

"I can't sense that," Adrian said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."

"I can't, either," Kippy spoke up then. "I just feel the same thing as before. That it's alive."

"I feel it knows we're here," Keerby insisted. "I feel its...interest in us." He looked surprised. "And a...a joy at our presence."

Charlie turned to Casper, only to find the small fellow already gazing up at him.

"I think Keerby's right," Casper said. "It knows we're here."

Charlie's gaze shifted to Ragal, and the tall man smiled. "I would tend to give credit to the senses of our power users, if you're asking."

Charlie laughed. "I was going to ask your opinion, yes."

"Then you have your answer."

Charlie turned to Keerby. "Do you sense any danger from Oumuamua?"

"Oh, no. None. Just that it has become aware of us, and that it's interested in us. Even happy to see us." The elf grimaced. "It's kind of weird. I still feel the sense of dreaming, but that the awareness level has changed to include us."

Charlie considered that, and then nodded. "Let me know if anything changes. I don't think I'd like it much if a bunch of strangers walked into my bedroom while I was sleeping."

"Okay. But all I sense now is interest and happiness, for the moment."

The lock closed, and began to cycle to space-normal.

"No gravity outside to speak of," Qurank reminded them then. "Your suits will keep you on the deck, but remember that there may be objects afloat out there. You don't want to walk into anything by accident."

The lock completed its cycle and the outer door opened. A short flight of stairs had emerged from the hull, and they made their way down them to the deck. There they formed a group, and silently stared about the huge room.

Just as Qurank had said, there were a few dim lights on here and there, enough to brighten the deck, at least, with enough light to walk about and not fall over anything. But the light faded with height, and the upper reaches of the hangar, three or maybe even four stories above them, were hidden in shadows. Charlie let his eyes rove, taking in the different fixtures visible along the walls, possibly for ship servicing of some kind, and the large tanks that seemed to fill the back of the hangar. He could almost envision a different ship than their own parked here, while indefinite forms scurried about it, performing tasks that even he could not imagine. They had no idea yet what the inhabitants of Oumuamua had looked like, but his imagination insisted on adding some movement to the picture, and he smiled at the wraith-like forms his mind produced.

Kippy was also examining the room. "There's such a feeling of time here," he said then, turning to look at Charlie. " much time. This place is old. But nothing like as old as Oumuamua." He shook his head. "You know what this place feels like? It feels like Engris to me. Ancient. And no one has been here for a long, long time. Whoever was here, left a very long time ago."

"It would be thousands and thousand of years between star systems," Ragal said. "If this place was really built nine hundred thousand years ago, Oumuamua could conceivably have visited upwards of a dozen solar systems in the interval."

"So we'll never know who they were," Casper said - a little sadly, Charlie thought.

"There's a way to know," Keerby said then. "It's just time, remember?"

Charlie turned to the elf, a sudden feeling of excitement taking hold of him. "That's right. And you're the time guy. What can you do about letting us see the people that were here once?"

"It's not that hard." Keerby smiled. "Observing the past is actually easier than going there. I can just encase us in a bubble holding our own time frame, and then let everything outside it slide backwards."

Qurank, floating nearby, made a noise that Charlie interpreted as doubtful. "Is this guy serious?"

Charlie laughed. "Definitely." He smiled at Keerby. "Do your stuff."

Keerby nodded, and briefly closed his eyes. Charlie had no doubt that whatever process the elf was about to initiate was hardly as simple as Keerby had suggested. But that he would not attempt it if he could not master it properly was also something Charlie was certain about. Keerby was good at what he did!

The Rootar shuttle, just behind them, flickered and vanished.

Qurank looked shocked. "My ship!"

"Relax," Keerby said quietly. "It's right where we left it. We'll be back before your mates on Ishkatar even know we're gone."

Outside the large entry port, the stars suddenly whirled into motion, and a moment later the sun came into view and leaped at them, enormous beyond anything they had ever seen before.

Ricky instinctively grabbed Adrian and pulled him closer, protectively, and Charlie's own grip on Kippy's arm spasmed in tune. But Charlie knew immediately what he was seeing, and loosened his grip on his boyfriend's arm, and instead rubbed it reassuringly.

"Relax," he said quickly, holding up his other hand to the others. "Oumuamua passed inside the orbit of Mercury when it went around the sun, is all. We're going back along it's path now."

But then the sun retreated just as quickly, and was gone. The whirl of stars outside became a blur, and a parade of ghostly light and shadow crisscrossed the deck of the hangar as the universe outside shifted around them. And then the port itself began to flicker between light and darkness, while shadows and shapes moved about them, and the bulk of something large appeared and disappeared nearby.

"We are back to a time when Oumuamua was inhabited," Keerby told them.

"Aren't we slowing down?" Kippy asked.

"In a moment. I want to get all the way back to when this place was being!"

The open port reappeared, and was immediately filled with the bulk of an odd-looking ship as it entered from space and settled towards the deck nearby. Wheels on struts emerged from beneath the fuselage, and the craft touched down light as a feather, and began a slow turn to face the port it had entered through.

"Remain calm," Keerby said. "We're observers, only. Nothing we see can touch us or harm us."

"Will we be able to hear anything?" Adrian asked.

"No. This is visual only, I'm afraid."

The odd ship was a flattened cylinder with stubby wings and a blunted nose, painted in white with blue lines along its side, and sort of resembled a drunken aviator's idea of an airliner, Charlie thought. There was a wide, short window in the nose, and the short wings bore integral nacelles suggesting engines of some kind. The look of the craft was just enough off from something they might see back on their own world as to suggest a design by a different type of mind altogether from what they were familiar with.

But that it was a perfectly functional design was evident. The craft stopped, and a moment later a lock opened in the side, and a flight of stairs extended from the port to the deck below.

"That looks familiar enough," Kippy said.

A stream of small bipeds in spacesuits emerged then, and started down the stairs. They came hand over hand, pulling themselves along the handrails, for there was no gravity in the hangar. As the first alien reached the deck, he performed a graceful turnabout maneuver and planted his boots firmly on the steel, and stood upright. The others followed suit, and soon the small crowd proceeded towards a large closed lock at the back of the hangar, moving slowly, raising and lowering their feet carefully, suggesting anchors that were only partially effective, at best.

The aliens were easily a foot shorter than Charlie and his friends, and perhaps only a foot taller than Casper. Their suits were white, with small symbols on the chests, different for each wearer. The suits were bulkier by far than the the ones the humans wore themselves, and equipped with small packs on the back that were undoubtedly atmosphere tanks of some sort. The group reached the port, cycled the lock, and vanished inside.

"Wow," Ricky said softly, his eyes on the now closed door. "What do you think of that?"

Charlie let his gaze go around the hangar then, and noted for the first time now that it was much more brightly lit than it had been in their own time. There were open panels in the walls, and sled-like frameworks bearing equipment tethered before them, and empty brackets within, suggesting that assembly of the hangar's systems was still in progress. There was an unfinished look to the place that was now obvious.

"Oh," breathed Casper, pointing, "look at that!"

Outside the still open port, a colorful light was slowly coming into view at the rim of the doorway as Oumuamua turned on her several axes. The motion was slow, and they stood in silence for several minutes as the light moved into their field of view.

"I'd bump it forward a little, but at this extreme distance in time, a few minutes is hard to define," Keerby said. "I might go right past the moment we want to see."

"That's okay," Charlie said softly. "We can wait."

It took several more minutes for the distant light to come fully into view. Charlie watched it, feeling that it looked familiar somehow, but unable to place what he was seeing. "It's too far away," he decided.

Keerby nodded. "Oh, that I can do. Zoom in, I mean."

The distant light suddenly expanded, and began to come towards them. It grew and grew in size, until in a matter of seconds it completely filled the frame of the big hangar door.

"Great Porlum's left foot!" Qurank exclaimed. "If that's what I think it is--!"

The light had split now into several sources, one near, one more distant. The nearer one was a great banded world, obviously a major planet. But it looked oddly flattened at the poles, and a thin streamer of glowing matter was moving away from the equator of the world, and flowing far across space to the next glowing object, which resembled a whirlpool of light with a dark center and two faint spiral arms.

A chill went through Charlie, and he turned to look at the Rootar. "What is that?"

Qurank's expression was grim. "That looks like a small black hole, busy ripping away the matter of that gas giant. Eating it, is the better word! That glowing spiral is the accretion disk. See how it's dark in the center? Matter gets sucked past the event horizon and disappears into the hole."

"A black hole!"

"Yessir. It will take out that whole planet eventually, and the rest of this solar system, including the sun, if it's not massive enough."

Kippy gripped Charlie's shoulder. "Oh, Charlie! Can't you see? They're running away from that!"

Charlie knew it to be true. At some time, perhaps nearly a million years before, a small black hole had entered a solar system containing an earth-like world, home to the little bipeds they had seen here. Those folk had spotted it when the black hole had started to consume the larger, outer system worlds, and seen the end of their civilization foretold. They had not had a level of technology that included star travel as yet, and no way then to flee the coming disaster.

How Oumuamua figured into this was hard to tell. Perhaps it had simply been passing through the system, just as it had done back at Earth's system. He wondered now if Oumuamua periodically visited suns in passing, perhaps to swoop by them and gather in their solar radiation in some way. Whatever the reason that the large visitor had been here, the people of this system had surely mapped its course and seen that it was on its way around the sun and back out to the stars. And in Oumuamua, they had seen a chance at salvation.

"They built all this stuff inside here," Ricky said, in amazement, "and when Oumuamua left their system, some of them went with it."

Kippy turned to Charlie, the pain in his eyes obvious. "But only a few could have gone. Out of a whole world full of people, only a handful must have escaped." He looked about the vast hangar. "Maybe thousands, out of billions."

It was an agonizing idea to consider. What would happen to the human race, if something like this happened at home? Humans weren't even at the technical level that these people had obviously enjoyed. There would be no place to go, no way to escape destruction!

Charlie felt a hand on the sleeve of his suit, and turned to gaze into Keerby's eyes. "No, Charlie. It could not happen to us."

The elf's gaze was steady and comforting. "Not with my people around. Not to mention Pacha, and Kontus, and all of your friends. There is no way this could happen to Earth."

Charlie shook his head, feeling some new assurance, but unable to distance himself from the tragedy that had happened here. "I know. But what an awful thing to have happened to these people. To look into the sky and see death at your doorstep, and know that there was nowhere to go to get away from it."

"But some of them did," Keerby pointed out. "Some bold soul looked at Oumuamua, and saw that its course was taking it away from the back hole, and out of the system. They must have already investigated this visitor to their star, and in some way understood that it was alive. They built these refuges inside, but were careful not to harm their host. And so some few did escape, before the end came upon their people."

"And it happened so long ago," Casper said, almost in a whisper. "Before my people knew of such things. And yours, too, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. But somehow, knowing that this was now an event long past did little to dull the horror of imagining a world full of people watching death come from the sky.

Ragal also moved closer, and laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "This is the universe we live in. It is a beautiful place, Charlie, but there are times it isn't pretty. Yet life goes on. Some of these people escaped the fate of their race."

"I wonder where they went?"

Ragal smiled at Keerby. "I think, if we are patient, and allow Keerby to take us forward, we may be able to find out."

The elf nodded. "I can do that." He turned, gave a little sigh, and closed his eyes again.

The hangar around them flickered, as the lighting changed and the swift shadows of people and machines moved about like wraiths. The big hangar door opened and closed in blinks of an eye, and the universe outside spun and wavered with distant lights. The strange ship they had seen came and went...and then it all paused, and then settled into a view they could understand with their eyes.

The hangar door was open now, and a line of the little bipeds stood before it, each suited figure attached to a long tether that stretched across the opening. Beyond the doorway, in the light spattered depths of space, a lone yellow sun stood out among the others, one just large enough to be seen as a disk instead of a dot. The bipeds seemed to be watching it, doing nothing else at all.

"They're saying goodbye," Kippy said then, his voice choked with emotion. "To their world, to their sun, and to their people."

"It's years later." Qurank spoke up."Oumuamua would have been outbound at speed. They'd have been putting a couple million miles behind them each day." The Rootar grunted. "But that's not fast by galactic standards. Their sun would have been visible for years after they left. A lot of years."

"That must have been so hard for them," Adrian said. "To look back and know what was happening." His voice also sounded emotional, and Ricky moved closer and put an arm around his boyfriend.

Keerby sighed over the com, and then again the hangar returned to a flicker as time passed with incredible speed. This time it went on far longer, and the next time there was a pause, it was to see another sun beyond the open door, this one perhaps as large as a marble. But unlike the sun the bipeds had left, this one was reddish in color, and looked far less inviting to the eye.

The little bipeds themselves were everywhere, also watching the distant star. Charlie immediately noticed that they were no longer tethered, that they walked on the deck just as they might on the surface of a world. Their spacesuits now were also much lighter looking, sleeker, and with only a tiny bulge in back that might hold atmosphere processing gear.

"They've invented gravity control," Qurank said. "And their suit tech has improved a lot."

"How did that happen?" Ricky asked. "I thought they all went to sleep in stasis while Oumuamua traveled between the stars?"

"I would say not all of them did," Ragal mused. "They may have run in long-term shifts of some kind, with certain members of the group awake while the balance of them slept. They would have been unable to depend on Oumuamua's course taking them somewhere they could find a livable world. They would have had to make some provision to eventually rescue themselves." He raised a hand and pointed at the distant red sun. "I suspect we are seeing the first star that Oumuamua approached after leaving their own. A red dwarf, not a very promising candidate for finding a world that would support them."

"How long do you think it took them to get there?" Kippy wondered.

"I can tell you," Keerby said. "Forty-six thousand years."

There was a moment of silence, as that figure seeped into everyone's thoughts.

"With all that time passed, I'm surprised they ain't invented a good star drive and left this place," Qurank finally offered.

"They may indeed have invented a star drive by this point." Ragal waved a hand about them. "But what to do with it, if they had? There were certainly many thousands of their people here on Oumuamua. Far too many to move with the few small ships they brought along with them, even equipped with a star drive."

"They could have built new ships." Ricky suggested. "Much bigger ones."

"With what?" Ragal swept a hand around the hangar. "In the depths of interstellar space, they would have had no raw materials with which to build things, let alone ships the size they would need. No raw materials except those in Oumuamua herself."

Adrian gasped. "And they wouldn't do that!"

"It would have been murder," Casper agreed. "And they knew that. And they didn't do it, not even to save themselves."

"Wait," Keerby said, and then the hangar started flickering again as time moved forward.

When it paused again, they could see the red sun outside the hangar door, much larger, much closer now. But between the hangar and the sun, something blocked some of the starlight, something large moving along with Oumuamua in her orbit.

"A ship?" Charlie asked, but not to anyone in particular.

"This system of the red sun must have provided materials they could use," Ragal said. "Asteroids, comets, even minor or major planets."

"I'll zoom in," Keerby said, and then the distant ship leaped closer.

It was indeed a ship in the building. A huge cylinder, covered with hull in places, but with others merely showing open framework, through which the light of the red sun poured almost unimpeded. Tiny sparks of light danced in the darkness all about the huge hull, certainly welding of some kind taking place. Several smaller ships hung in space at intervals along the huge construction, and Charlie recognized the design as being the same as the alien ship they had seen in the hangar.

It gave scale to the project: the vessel they were building was huge. Almost as large as Oumuamua, perhaps, and certainly large enough to carry away the thousands of people that had been living aboard the wanderer for these many thousands of years.

"They would have had decades to build it," Charlie said, nodding. "If how long Oumuamua took to pass through our own system is any indicator."

"I thought it was in and out in two years?" Kippy asked.

Charlie shook his head. "Oumuamua first crossed what is considered the limits of our solar system in 1837. Way out, a thousand times the distance Earth is from the sun. It would have been many more years before it reached the planets, but there would have been a very long stretch of years where anyone aboard Oumuamua would have had access to the raw materials of our own solar system." He smiled. "Oumuamua will be just as long leaving our sun. It gives you a sense of wonder at how long it took for it to actually get from one star to another."

"There's more," Keerby said. Again the hangar flickered with the lights and shadows of advancing time, before once again coming to a standstill. Now, outside the hangar door, the new ship stood by much closer than before, an enormous bulk, marker lights lit along her length, with every sense that this was a ship ready to tackle the stars. Two of the smaller craft from Oumuamua were in the process of docking there, entering through a large door in the side of the craft. They touched down, and almost immediately streams of the little bipeds issued forth and marched down the landing stairs.

Adrian gasped. "They much have had them crammed in there like sardines in a can!"

It seemed plain why. The aliens were clearly ferrying their people over to the new ship, a mere moment of cramped inconvenience, worth the price of salvation. Here inside their own hangar, one of the stubby winged ships stood, while a small party of the bipeds stood in a circle in one corner of the large room. They seemed to be in conversation, if the way their hands and arms moved were any indicators. Finally, they all bent forward and reached down to touch something, and Charlie noticed then that the aliens were standing about a flat raised circle attached to the deck. The bipeds placed their hands on the rim of the circle and ceased all movement for a moment; and then the group suddenly broke up and started moving towards the ship.

They boarded it, one by one, going up the steps with a certain grave reluctance that was visible even through their spacesuits. The last biped reached the top of the stairs and stopped, and turned around. They could tell by the way the reflective helmet made a slow survey that the alien was taking a last, long look; and then the suited figure reached down and detached a small device from a belt at its waist, and held it up high.

The lights in the hangar slowly faded, finally reaching the subdued levels that they themselves had seen upon boarding. The biped let go of the device it held then, and rather than falling to the floor, it hung in he air before him.

"Turned off the gravity," Qurank said.

"And everything else, maybe," Ricky added.

The alien seemed to be watching the small device a moment before slowly raising a hand and giving it a gentle push. The device sailed away from him, crossed the room, then took on a new life as it neared a panel filled with odd controls in one wall. It made an abrupt right turn, approached the panel, and attached itself there. Charlie had the distinct impression the the suited alien smiled at that, before it turned and vanished into the small ship. The lock closed, and the ship moved away from Oumuamua.

It took just minutes to cross to the larger ship, where it vanished through another lock, which closed behind it. Scarcely was the shuttle aboard when the huge ship turned away from Oumuamua, dwindled rapidly in size, and then vanished among the stars.

"They left," Charlie said, in amazement. "They left at the first star they came to."

"After forty-six thousand years!" Qurank added, pointedly.

"I'll bet I know where they went, too," Ricky said.

Adrian immediately nodded. "Yeah. They went home."

"Back to their old system, to see what happened to their people," Kippy continued, squeezing his eyes shut. "It's what I would have done."

"Me, too," Charlie agreed. "If for no other reason but for the closure. But I'm sure they had to know if any others of their people had survived."

"Wow," Ricky finished up, shaking his head. "Wow."

"That's all we can get at this time, "Keerby said. "Back to the present."

There was a moment of darkness around them, and then they were once again standing on the deck of the hangar, the Rootar shuttle parked nearby.

Casper immediately gasped, and bent forward to place his hands upon his knees. "Oh my!"

Kippy and Adrian both ducked, as if something physical had passed over them. Even Keerby gasped, and took a step backwards

"What's the matter?" Charlie called, suddenly alarmed.

But Kippy and Adrian steadied quickly, and Casper straightened once again. Keerby placed a hand on the chest of his suit, as if catching his breath.

Kippy came closer to Charlie, took his arm, and snuggled as close as the suits would permit. "I felt something awful."

"Me, too," Adrian said, nodding his head inside his helmet. "What was that?"

"Despair," Casper said, tilting his conical head slightly to one side. "I know it when I feel it."

"Loneliness," Keerby said, right on Casper's heels. "An aching, terrible loneliness."

"But it's fading," Casper continued. "Oumuamua knows we're back."

Charlie looked from one face to another. "Are you saying that Oumuamua is glad to see us?"

When no one answered immediately, Ragal stepped forward. "A theory, Charlie," he said, his expression looking thoughtful. "An exercise in thought."

Charlie smiled, already knowing how accurate Ragal's theories often proved to be. "I think you've got our attention."

The tall alien laughed. "Let us suppose for a moment that the bipeds that once lived here were not just aware that Oumuamua was alive, but that they were in some way able to share some sort of intimacy with her." He indicated Keerby, and Casper, and then Kippy and Adrian. "The sensitives among our own group have already determined that Oumuamua is alive and thinking, even if in some sort of dreamlike state dissimilar to our own thought processes. Let's take that a step farther, and suppose that the small bipeds that sought refuge on Oumuamua had the ability to go beyond our own abilities, and make actual contact."

Ricky whistled in amazement. "You mean like telepathy?"

Ragal smiled. "I know the definition of that word in human terms, but I resist the literalness of its implications. One need not share actual conversation between minds, in order to share camaraderie and a joint sense of purpose."

"You mean company," Kippy said. "They kept each other company, on that long voyage between stars."

"It may be as simple as that," Ragal agreed. "In any event, Oumuamua, perhaps for the first time in her existence, had someone to share her travels with her. One gets used to having friends very quickly, and misses them when they are gone."

"You think she's lonely?" Adrian asked.

"That actually makes sense," Keerby said. "When we first came aboard, I sensed that Oumuamua became aware of us, and was not only interested, but quite overjoyed at our presence."

"That's what I felt," Casper agreed. "The mind here was pleased to have company again."

"So what was with the sudden bout of despair?" Qurank asked. "We've been here the whole time."

"Not entirely," Keerby corrected. "While we were observing the past, our physical and mental presence here would have been briefly severed. To Oumuamua, it would have seemed that we were gone again."

"And she reacted with loneliness and despair." Charlie said.

"Aw," Kippy said, softly. "She misses the little bipeds. She misses their company."

"Its a working element of my theory," Ragal confirmed.

Charlie turned to Casper. "What do you sense now?"

"Happiness. Contentment. Pleasure."

"Our thoughts...our minds, are stimulating hers," Keerby decided.

"No one should be alone, that doesn't want to be alone," Kippy said. "What can we do to help her?"

Ricky whistled again. "We can't stay here, not even one of us!"

"No." Charlie agreed. "But we can't ignore Oumuamua's plea for assistance, either."

"She hasn't asked you gents for nothin'!" Qurank pointed out.

"She doesn't need to," Charlie said. "People in difficulty sometimes can't ask for help. That is no reason not to give it if we can."

"But what can we do?" Ricky asked.

Casper moved to Keerby then, and touched his suit. "Can you and I get a private channel?"

If Keerby was surprised by the request, he didn't show it."Sure. Here we go--"

Their voices cut off, but it was plain from their movements that they were still talking.

Kippy turned to Charlie, his eyes full of questions. Charlie was not terribly thrilled at being excluded from the conversation, either, but trusted that Casper would only have asked for such a thing with good reason. He looked over at Ragal, who smiled at him, every nuance of his expression stating the same request: have patience.

Casper suddenly turned back to them, and Charlie's com came alive again.

"We have a plan," Casper said, sounding excited. "But we'll need help to try it."

"Big help," Keerby agreed.

"Help from whom?" Charlie asked, even as a suspicion was forming in his mind.

Keerby grinned. "Just a second. I'm working on it now." He turned to where Qurank floated nearby. "Can we go back aboard the shuttle?"

In answer, the head spun inside its little bubble of light and flew back towards the landing stairs. "You gents are beyond me! Come on in."

They boarded the shuttle, and once back in atmosphere, removed their helmets. Keerby went and sat in one of the chairs, and closed his eyes, while Casper stood anxiously nearby.

"I didn't want to get anybody's hope up until I knew we could do this," the little alien told them. "We'll know in a minute, I think."

Again, Kippy looked at Charlie, as if to say what do you think?

Charlie smiled, his own ideas firming up now. "Wait for it."

Kippy's eyebrows had just gone up questioningly when Charlie felt a slight displacement of air, and then heard a small pop nearby.

Max appeared, looked around the room quickly, and then smiled at Charlie. "Hey, fellas. What's up?"

"This is kinda outside my abilities, I think," Max said, after Keerby and Casper had filled him in. The elder elf was seated in a seat formed just for him by the shuttle, and calmly looking about at the circle of faces. "We'll need some specialists on this, I think."

Charlie smiled. "You're being modest, right?"

The older elf laughed. "I know you guys are used to me knowin' what to do in every situation that comes along, but even I have limits."

Kippy sighed, and leaned over Max from behind, laid his chin on the elf's shoulder, and pressed their cheeks together. "Say it's not true."

Max's face reddened, and the boys all laughed.

"Aw, geez," Max muttered, but the smile never left his face.

Kippy pulled back and patted Max on the shoulder. "We have to find a way to help Oumuamua. We can't just go off and leave her alone again."

Max briefly closed his eyes, and then nodded. "You guys never stop amazin' me, the stuff you get into." His eyes popped open again. "I ain't never encountered anything like this Oumuamua before."

"She is alive, right?" Charlie asked, just because he considered Max a good candidate for a final authority.

"Yeah, she is. How it happened, I don't know." The elf frowned, and then turned to Keerby. "Thanks for callin' me in on this. Glad to see you're using those brains of yours."

Keerby looked embarrassed, and then followed that with a pleased look at the compliment, and then he smiled around at the others. "Maybe it's the company I keep."

There was laughter at that.

"Besides," Keerby went on, "it was Casper's idea."

Max nodded, and smiled at the little alien. "Nice to have you around, Casper. You can help to keep this group of knuckleheads straight."

"I beg your pardon," Kippy said acidly, "but I will never be straight, no matter what you do!"

His boyrfriend's eyes were bright with humor, though, and Charlie could only laugh.

Max's face reddened again, and he let loose a small sigh. "Aw, geez. Okay, let's see what we can do about this situation."

Qurank, who had been listening quietly, turned to face Charlie and the others. "Is it crazy like this for you gents all the time?"

"Pretty much," Rick said, patting Charlie on the shoulder. "Our Britannica Brain is always getting us into something."

The Rootar looked puzzled. "I don't get the reference."

"Never mind," Charlie said quickly, casting a quick glare at Rick. He turned back to Max. "What do you think we should do?"

The elf frowned. "Well, I like Casper's idea. I just ain't sure how to go about doin' it. I think...yeah...I think I know who to call., though" He laughed. "Maybe!"

Max closed his eyes, and a moment later Charlie felt the air nearby move, and another elf appeared. This one was female, and obviously old. Her hair actually had streaks of gray in it, and Charlie was stunned to see clear crow's feet around her eyes. Considering that Max was over six hundred years old, and looked like he was twenty-five, this must be a really old elf, indeed!

A lacy apron was fastened about the woman's waist, covering a blue house dress with a floral pattern on it. She had a large wooden spoon in one hand, which she immediately pointed at Max with the severity of a sword. "This had better be good. If my cake falls, there'll be hell to pay."

Max grinned. "I love you, too, Erma." He turned to the others then, and indicated the new arrival with one hand. "Fellas, this is Erma. She's a listener."

Keerby gave out a low whistle, and immediately gave a little bow. "It's an honor, ma'am."

Erma blinked, and then smiled. "Well, at least you have manners, if Max doesn't seem to."

"I got manners," Max complained, and then made a show of patting his pockets. "Somewhere here."

Erma finally laughed, and took the spoon and gently prodded Max in the chest with it. "Good to see you again, Max. I think I know why you called me."

"Uh huh. I'm sure you can feel her. What do you think?"

"Never felt anything like it before."

"Can you understand her? Maybe talk to her?"

Erma closed her eyes, but immediately shook her head. "There isn't an ounce of language here. Or, not the spoken type we're used to. It's all visual, and...emotional."

"Intelligent?" Keerby asked. "We felt that Oumuamua was more than an animal."

"You're right." Erma nodded. "The thoughts are deeper than any I've ever touched before. Old beyond belief. Our friend here has been a lot of places in her life, and seen and done a lot of things."

"I have a question," Charlie spoke up.

Max immediately smacked the side of his head. "Sorry, Erma. This is Charlie. And that's Kip, Adrian, Rick, Ragal, and Casper. And our Keerby, of course." Max turned to the Rootar, and smiled. "I ain't met this fella yet."

"Qurank," the head said, sounding a little surprised to be included. "And Captain Neema, Diek, Beel, and Stropa, by proxy. They've been followin' along with us by com."

"Nice to meet ya all," Max said.

Erma smiled at the Rootar. "You're an interesting one. Can we talk after we handle this little matter?"


Charlie smiled at Qurank's momentary look of discomfort, but then returned his gaze to Erma.

She smiled at him, and nodded. "Shoot."

"Well, we've been under the assumption that Oumuamua in some way was in contact with the refugees here, while they traveled between stars. And that she now misses them. Our appearance here seems to have gained her interest, and when she thought we were gone again, it left her in despair." Charlie nodded. "I was wondering if we were on the mark in thinking those things."

Erma nodded. "I think you're right in all of your guesses. I feel very deeply that this person has had a taste of companionship for the first time in her long life, and that once that ended, she felt the impact of being on her own again very deeply. It would seem that, before the refugees arrived here, she had no concept at all of other minds beyond her own. The revelation was both stunning and welcome for her."

"Then we need to find her some company again," Kippy spoke up. "We can't leave her alone. Especially not --" He broke off, and his eyes sought out Charlie's. "Especially not at Valentine's Day."

Charlie sighed, and moved closer to put his arm around his boyfriend's shoulders. "Amen to that."

Kippy smiled, and Charlie kissed his cheek. "You're such a sweetheart," Charlie whispered, not really caring if anyone heard.

Max cleared his throat. "Yeah, well...what can we do about this, is what we're wonderin'." He turned and dropped an arm around Casper's narrow shoulders, and gently urged him forward to stand in front of Erma. "Casper here, has an idea."

Erma nodded, and smiled down at Casper. "My, my. You're just full of potential, aren't you? I've never met anyone like you, either." She smiled at Max. "Thanks for calling me in on this."

"Sure thing. Just don't forget about your cake."

Erma frowned a moment, waved her spoon in the air, and then smiled again. "It will keep now." Her gaze dropped to Casper again. "What have you got in mind, honey?"

Casper looked over at Kippy, who immediately gave him an encouraging smile, generating one of Casper's own.

"Well...I was thinking, that it's pretty rare for there to ever be just one of anything in this universe. What I was hoping was that we could find Oumuamua, and maybe team them up."

Charlie stared at the little alien a moment, and then smiled. "What a great idea."

"If it can be done," Casper said, hastily. "I mean, even if there are lots of people like Oumuamua do we find another one?"

"Indeed." Erma looked thoughtful, and then nodded quickly to herself. "We need a locator I can work with."

"Bevvy Erly is the best one I know," Max said, thinking. "Or maybe Ruby Kostafranovich." But then he snapped his fingers. "No, wait. Merl and Ada Umwald's daughter, Neelie, scored almost twice as high on the Horta test as even Bev Erly did."

Erma frowned. "I heard about that. But she's awfully young and inexperienced. I'm not sure she could help us with this matter."

Max grinned. "Won't know unless we try."

"If I may interrupt," Ragal spoke up, raising a hand, "I have an observation I'd like to share."

Erma looked over at Ragal, cocked her head in curiosity, and smiled again. "My, my. So many interesting people, all in one place." She patted Max's arm. "You really do need to invite me out more often."

Ragal smiled at that. "I should point out that placing Oumuamua with one of her own kind without consulting her on the matter may yield a result we don't expect. There may be a reason her kind lead a solitary existence."

Erma did not seem surprised by the comment. "I can receive much of what our new friend senses and feels, but I can't actually talk to her. What I can say is that Oumuamua has no knowledge that I can find of the existence of others of her kind."

"Then it is not a separation of choice?" Ragal asked.

"Not that I can determine. Oumuamua literally had no idea that there was other life in the universe until she met the Hanschwei."

Charlie immediately fastened on that. "Is that what the little bipeds were called?"

"That is what they thought of themselves in a group sense, yes. But consider it a translation, as Oumuamua only has a visual and emotional sense of how they viewed themselves."

"So they could talk to Oumuamua?"

"It seems they were rather gifted communicators, and with a high degree of empathy. They knew immediately upon encountering Oumuamua in their system that she was a distinct entity, and an intelligent one. While they seem to have been unable to actually converse with Oumuamua anymore than I can, they shared a very deep link with her that was almost as revealing. Oumuamua grew very fond of them in the time they shared this place. It was quite a blow to her when they left."

"We gathered that much," Adrian said. "We could feel the power of her loneliness."

"Could we!" Kippy said softly. "It actually hurt to feel."

Erma nodded. "Your skwish potential is off the chart." Her eyes shifted to Adrian. "And yours." Her gaze moved to Charlie, and then Rick. "All of you have some interesting things evolving within you." She turned to Max. "You need to keep an eye on them, and help them along."

Max laughed at that. "Oh, I've been watching out for them, no doubt about that!"

Charlie was again surprised that someone had mentioned evolving powers or senses within him. He felt no different now than he had felt before they had met Max for the first time, and he definitely did not feel that he had added anything new to his ability to get along with the world and the sometimes odd things that cropped up in it. Not like Kip and Adrian had, at least.

Ricky apparently felt the same way. "I didn't feel anything at all about Oumuamua."

Erma nodded. "You're not a listener, is all. Or, not of the kind I am familiar with." She waved a hand at Kippy and Adrian. "These two are, but of a different nature than myself. But all four of you are growing. It isn't something to fear, believe me. I don't sense anything malevolent in any of you."

Max waved his hands at that. "Don't scare 'em!"

Erma laughed. "They're not scared. They're made uneasy by all this talk of changes within them that they don't really feel yet, is all." She smiled. "Just relax, all of you. You'll be fine."

Max leaned closer to Charlie. "You hear that? You listen to her, okay? If Erma tells you you'll be okay, you will."

Charlie did feel relaxed by the double reassurances. He smiled at Ricky, who also looked somehow relieved. "You good?"

Rick nodded. "Yep."

Ragal had stood by patiently during the byplay, and now turned back to Erma. "I sense an interest in Oumuamua in what we are all thinking about. She seems able to gather some idea that we mean to find her companionship. She seems to have a positive opinion of this, though I don't think she understands we mean to find her a companion of her own kind. She seems unable to grasp that there might be others like her in the universe."

Erma nodded. "You're a listener of a kind I've never met. I agree with you completely, but how you arrived at some of your opinions intrigues me. We'll have to talk later, okay?'

"It would be my pleasure. I am also intrigued by your own abilities, and would welcome the chance to discuss them."

Max rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay, we can do all this stuff later. Can we get back to the matter at hand?"

"Don't be rude now, "Erma scolded. "You're too good at it for your own good."

Max grinned, and patted his pockets again. "Still lookin' for them manners."

Charlie cleared his throat. " we need to get this locator person here? How will that help?"

"Locators can find anything, anywhere, anywhen," Erma said. "All they need is something concrete to look for, just as a hunting dog needs the scent of its subject. It is my hope that a locator, starting with my impression of Oumuamua's mind, will be able to find another like it."

"Wow." Charlie considered that, and nodded. "That sounds awesome."

Erma beamed. "I'll take that as a blessing on the venture and get going on it right now." She settled herself into one of the seats, flinched in surprise when it adjusted to her form, and then smiled and closed her eyes. "My my. What will they think of next?"

Max turned to Keerby, and clapped him gently on the back. "Good thing you were here. If the guys had been on their own, they have had to come get me by ship. This place wouldn't be in the guidebook if you hadn't been here first."

Keerby nodded. "You know how these guys are. They broadcast so strongly. I felt where they were going, and why, and it just seemed to me I needed to go along."

"That's trusting your instincts," Max said. "You have awfully good ones for someone so young. You're gonna be a real dynamo when you get a few more years on ya."

Keerby blushed, but seemed very pleased at the compliment. "I try to follow your example."

Max laughed at that. "Oh, brother. You'll wind up in charge of somethin' one day, is my guess. With skills like that, you can't miss!"

"Politics doesn't interest me," Keerby returned. "But learning and exploring does. I like going along with Charlie and the gang."

"We like having you with us," Charlie returned. "You've really made a difference in some of the things we've done."

"He's cute, too, remember!" Kippy whispered.

Charlie grinned, but didn't take the bait. "You're welcome to come with us whenever we go on one of"

"Adventures," Ricky supplied. "Quests. Exploits. Journeys."

"Trips," Charlie finished, grinning at Ricky. The other boy rolled his eyes, but didn't argue the point.

"Thanks," Keerby replied. "That means a lot to me."

"Okay," Erma said, rising. "I think we're ready to go."

In response to her words, there was a larger pop nearby, and three elves appeared in the ship.

"Gettin' crowded in here!" Qurank said, softly. "Who needs a ship, with these guys around?"

Charlie smiled at him. "You can add the extra people to our bill."

The Rootar's face lit up at that. "Oh, well, if it's like that! Anyone else comin'?"

Charlie laughed, and turned to look over the new arrivals.

There was a man and a woman, and a young girl. All elves, all appealing to the eyes. The man and woman were as ageless in appearance as Max, pleasant looking and smiling; but the girl couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, by her appearance. If this was their locator, then Charlie could see why Erma had had doubts about her experience.

Erma introduced the adults as Merl and Ada, and the girl as Neelie, and then introduced Charlie and the members of his party.

"Wow," Neelie said immediately, looking at Qurank. "You're amazing!"

The Rootar apparently could not blush, but every other indication of discomfort came through clearly. "Uh...thanks!"

Neelie's eyes circled the group, and then came back to Erma's. "What a bunch of cute guys!"

Ada waggled a finger at her daughter. "Behave, young lady."

"I'm just sayin'," Neelie returned, looking abashed.

Erma nodded. "You know why I sent for you?"

Neelie nodded. "You want me to find something for you."

"A very special something," Erma agreed. She extended a hand, and waggled her fingers. "Grab hold."

Neelie took two steps forward and took hold of Erma's hand. She immediately gasped, and looked around the interior of the ship. "That's here? Or outside? It' so big! And so old!" She seemed to consider that, and then smiled. "And so special!"

Erma nodded. "We agree on that. This is Oumuamua you're sensing. She comes from the depths of the galaxy, and has been journeying for millions of years. She is lonely now, and in need of companionship. What I want you to find is a friend for her."

"That looks like that?" Neelie asked, closing her eyes. "It's all energy and light!"

"But see the pattern? See the way it's woven? It's unique, like no other in my experience. I want you to look for that pattern, okay?"

Neelie gasped. "Out there? Among the stars? There's so many!"

"You can do it," Erma said calmly. "Take them one at a time, just look for that pattern in the space around them, and move on. It will get faster and faster as you go, and in no time we'll be done."

Max stepped forward then, and raised a hand. "Ready, Erma?"


Max closed his eyes, moved his hand...and Erma and Neelie both froze. A thin, bluish aura sprang up around the two, ebbing and flowing like mist around a lighthouse on a foggy day.

"Oh," Keerby said softly, leaning forward to look. "Micro time."

Max nodded. "They can be in there for however long it takes to find what they're looking for, and then rejoin us with just a few seconds or minutes passed."

"Wow." Keerby looked eager then. "I need to learn that."

The older elf grinned. "I'd be glad to teach you."

"You mean they're in some other time now?" Qurank asked. "Right in front of us, like that? Great Porlum's left foot!"

"Who is this Porlum guy, anyway?" Adrian asked.

"Huh? Oh..." Qurank's face stretched into another terrifying grin. "Just some guy from the homeworld. There's an old story about how his tree took a misstep in a swamp full of rachetgators and lost the left half of their vine, kind of like the way we did at Rectival and lost both sides of ours. Except their left foot supposedly took on a life of its own, and went looking for its tree - or any tree it could find, for that matter. You hear a noise in the night, or some other strange sound, and it's supposed to be Porlum's left foot, looking for a tree to take over." The Rootar laughed. "Just stories to scare the kids with."

"A ghost story!" Casper said. "I love them!"

"You have them, too?" Kippy asked.

"Sure. They used to be really scary, until the ruling body started the purges of power users. That kind of became the most scary thing I could think of then!"

Charlie winced at that, at the very idea of a culture that could kill its own for being different. "I'll have to tell you some of our ghost stories sometime, just to see if you like them," he told Casper.

"Monkey's Paw," Kippy said, grinning. "I'll do it!"

"Whoops," Max said then, and waved a finger.

Erma and Neelie immediately relaxed and released hands. "How long?" Erma asked.

"About fifteen years," Max told her. "Longer than I expected."

Even Charlie had to gape at that. "They were searching for fifteen years?"

"Yep. They didn't feel it as that long, of course. And we certainly didn't!"

"Wow." Keerby looked impressed. "I have got to get me some of that!"

Erma turned to Qurank. "You use the standard galactic charts for this arm?"

The Rootar's eyes positively bugged out at that. "You know about that?"

"Certainly. With Max's exploits out and around, we had to start a new system of movement for the guidebook."

Qurank cleared his throat. "You give me coordinates, and I can find the place."

Erma raised a hand, and a sheet of blue paper appeared in it. "Using our current location as a reference, of course."

"Set it over on the console," Qurank instructed. "Cap'n? You get this?"

"Yeah. Find out where they want to go, and feed me the coordinates. I'll take 'em there."

Qurank floated over to his console, and went to work on the paper.

"I have a question," Kippy said, raising his hand.

Erma smiled at him. "Shoot."

"Saying we find another, uh, person like Oumuamua, do we bring that person here, or take Oumuamua there?"

The elder elf smiled. "That's a very good question." She turned to Ragal. "Opinion?"

The spindly alien grinned. "Well, since we are sort of in communication with Oumuamua, and she seems to know what we intend, it seems we should move her there. It would be unfair to basically kidnap an unaware stranger to bring here."

Erma nodded. "Good answer. Ethical. I like it."

Ragal laughed. "Why do I feel like you're teasing me?"

"Because I am. That's what friends do. And I think you and I are to become good friends."

Ragal gave a slight bow. "That would make me very happy, too."

Qurank revolved on his ring to face them. "Uh...people? This destination is almost twenty thousand light years away. It's gonna be a long trip."

Erma turned to Max. "We will need you or Keerby to cut the time down."

"It's not just that," Qurank said. "It's...uh...well..."

"Outside your normal run," Charlie guessed. "It's new territory."

"That's putting it lightly," Qurank grumbled.

"We can get you there and back with no time lost," Max said. "Well, not much, anyway."

Qurank made an unintelligible sound. "Uh, Cap'n? What are we going to do?"

"Are you simple? We'll take them, of course. Just the survey maps we make will be worth the trip!"

Qurank brightened, and exhibited a smile that would frighten away a jack-o-lantern. "At your service, gents."

Adrian raised a hand. "Are we all going?"

Erma laughed. "I am, because I want to see this thing through." She turned to Merl and Ada. "Do you need to get back?"

"No," Merl returned. "And I expect Neelie would like to see how this turns out, too."

"I would!" the girl said, cheerfully.

Erma turned back to Adrian. "What's on your mind?"

Adrian looked unsure of himself a moment, but Rick reached over and gave him a gentle prod.

"Well," Adrian said, "I just didn't want to leave Oumuamua alone."

"We're not leaving her alone, sweetie. We'll take her with us."

Qurank made a shocked sound. "That thing won't fit inside Ishkatar, I can tell you. And there's no way we could tow something with that kind of mass."

Max waved a hand. "Aw, it's just size. We'll take care of that, believe me."

"Shut up, Qurank," Captain Neema said over the com. "These people know what they're doing."

"Uh huh." Qurank turned back to his console.

Charlie went and sat in a seat, and sighed. In a moment, Kippy came and sat next to him.

"What's wrong, Charlie?"

He smiled at his boyfriend. "Nothing. Everything seems to be in good hands."

Kippy reached over and rubbed Charlie's arm. "They've kind of taken it out of our hands, though, haven't they?"

"It's not that." Charlie mulled over his own words a moment, and then frowned. "I'm happy we can do something for Oumuamua. And we needed help to do that."


"I just hope it works. The idea of Oumuamua having to go off on her own again makes me unhappy." Charlie leaned closer, and took Kippy's hand. "I love you, Kip."

"Oh, Charlie, I know that. I love you so much, too."

Charlie nodded. "See what we have? Everyone should have that, if they want it. Friends. Companions. Love. We have so much, and others have so little." He looked up at the overhead, imagining Oumuamua beyond. "Or none."

Rick and Adrian appeared, and sat in the seats across from them. "Can we get in on this?" Ricky asked.

Charlie smiled. "Anytime. Friends are always welcome."

The others leaned together, and mimicked the closeness of Charlie and Kip. Charlie watched them a moment, seeing how happy they were together, and nodded. "We love you guys."

"Same here," Ricky returned, without the slightest sign of embaraasment. "You should know that."

"We do," Kip said.

Adrian smiled. "It's Oumuamua. Her happiness is spilling over on us."

Charlie considered that, hoping that the things he was feeling weren't just being generated elsewhere and then thrust off onto him. "You mean that literally?"

Adrian looked surprised. "I mean that the thought of giving Oumuamua the sort of companionship we have makes me...makes us,...very happy. Isn't that apparent?"

Charlie was relieved. "I thought you meant that we were all picking up on her feelings, somehow. That they weren't our own."

"No. Though I wouldn't be surprised if we were all feeling some of her pleasure. My sense is that Oumuamua is, well, excited over this."

Kippy laughed. "I feel the same way. She's waiting to see what we come up with."

Charlie turned to look at his boyfriend. "You think she knows what we plan?"

Kippy shrugged. "Probably not exactly, no." He smiled. "I think she's going to be surprised if we come up with another like her."

Charlie warmed to the idea, feeling a trace of excitement himself.

Qurank lifted the shuttle from the deck in the hangar, and they moved slowly back out into space.

"I think we've convinced Oumuamua to be patient," Erma said, coming to sit near them.

Ragal was just behind her, and also sat. "I think we have also convinced her that we will not leave her, even if she feels us moving away. I want to keep her spirits up, if at all possible. The better her mood, the more recpetive she will be to meeting someone new."

Casper and Neelie took seats, too. "This is so exciting!" the girl gushed, grinning around at everyone. "I'm so glad you asked me to come!"

Casper smiled, and rolled his eyes, but seemed to be enjoying Neelie's good spirits. The two had been off talking together for some time, and Charlie figured it was good for Casper to spend some time with someone a little closer to his own age. No one was certain how old Casper was, but Ragal figured he was Earth-equivalent to fifteen years of age, at the most.

The shuttle exited the gash in Oumuamua's side, and pulled away from her. The Ishkatar came into view, and the shuttle moved toward the larger craft, towards a large bay that opened in the bigger ship's side.

"Only take a moment to dock," Qurank said. "Capn's waiting for everyone in control."

One of the displays showed Oumuamua behind them, fading now to a darker mass among the stars. "Don't be scared," Charlie whispered. "We're not leaving you behind."

Kippy sighed, and leaned against him, and gently rubbed his cheek into Charlie's shoulder. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Charlie knew that his boyfriend shared his sentiments about the strange new life they had found in space.

Soon they were docked, and atmospheres matched, and the crowd of them traipsed into the control room, where the tree still stood in the middle of the round comsole. Qurank breathed a sigh of relief and rejoined the tree, and the ring he had been riding returned to its drawer below.

"Now," Captain Neema said, turning to face them. "What's the next step here, gents?"

Max pointed at the display showing Oumuamua. "We're going to take her with us."

"I can't tow that sort of mass, I can tell you. Not twenty kilometers, let alone twenty thousand light years."

"I know." Max nodded. "What we'll be doing is taking a piece of the space she resides in along with us. That will keep her connected to us, and she will always feel our presence. Plus, when we're ready to move her, we'll expand the space into a tunnel, and pull her through."

Charlie simply stared at Max. "You're serious?"

Max grinned. "Yep."

"I never heard of anything like this," Charlie said. "You've never done anything like this before."

Max's grin expanded. "I've never done anything like this, period."

Charlie was stunned. "And you think it will work?"

Max nodded. "This is something I learned from Pacha. It's a variation on the stuff they used to send the Arpathant to an alternate universe. We just ain't gonna point our tunnel at some other universe."

Kippy also looked amazed. "And you think it will work? Couldn't it be dangerous to Oumuamua?"

"No." Max sighed. "Fellas, this thing only goes one way. It either works just like I want it to, or not at all. And it will work." His eyes circled the boy's faces, and he smiled again. "Trust me."

Charlie took a breath, and slowly let it sigh out again. Trust. If there was anyone that Charlie trusted with magic, it was Max.

"I trust you," Kippy said. He looked at Charlie.

"Yeah. I do, too."

Ricky held up a hand. "Never any doubt here."

Adrian smiled. "Lead on, McMax."

That made Charlie laugh, and that made his tension seep away.

"So we're all good?" Max asked.

Charlie nodded. "Let's do it."

"Big solar system," Captain Neema said, as Ishkatar sailed past the rings of a world twice the size of Saturn. Awful lot of junk orbiting the primary."

"We're just looking for one thing," Charlie said. He turned to Erma. "You know where it is?"

Erma, still clutching her wooden spoon, turned and pointed it at Qurank. "Are we still on the line I gave you?"

"Yeah. I may have to dance around some of the local junk here and there, but it shouldn't be hard to stay on it."

Erma smiled at Charlie. "Then yes, I know where our new friend will be."

Charlie smiled at that. Erma was businesslike and efficient, but there were things about her nature that shined through that, letting everyone know that she was a sweetie at heart. Charlie would have been surprised to find it any other way. So far, he had yet to meet an elf that was anything but kind.

Kippy sighed. "I'm going to miss Oumuamua. I know we don't really know each other, but she's touched a place in my heart. I hope this works out well for her."

"You can always come back to visit her, anytime you want." Keerby pointed out.

Kippy sat up straighter in his seat. "I can?"

"Sure. Once we've been anywhere once, we can always teleport back there."

Kippy shook his head. "But Oumuamua will always be moving around. How can you keep track of her?"

Keerby shook his head. "Kip, everything in the universe is moving, all the time. We don't keep track of locations in space, we keep track of places. That hangar in Oumuamua is in the guidebook now. No matter where Oumuamua goes, we'll always be able to get to that hangar."

"Not only that," Erma said, "but I have a link to Oumuamua's mind now. If anything comes up that threatens her, I'll know."

Kippy smiled, and sat back again. "That's really good to know. I will want to come see her, I'm sure."

Casper nodded. "Me, too. I'm glad you invited us on this trip, Charlie. I love Engris, but there's only so much to do there."

Adrian laughed at that. "I could spend every day in the pirate market."

"I did that, too, for the first month of subjective time. But the stuff there only flips over very slowly, as new, traders, come in."

Adrian frowned at that. "I forgot that subjective time in no time works both ways. You don't age, but the hands of the clock still move, while they don't at all out here by comparison."

Charlie gave Casper a playful poke with his finger. "You and Ragal can always hire a ship and go exploring. I'm sure captain Neema would be glad to have you again!"

All the Rootar on the tree turned and gave out a collective hoot. "This is the most fun we've had in ages!" Stropa called.

"I'll say!" Diek agreed. "Makes looting graves on Kuspernar or Rigelix seem tame!"

"He means our archeologiacal work," Qurank said hastily. "Never can get enough education!"

"Haha!" Beel added, nervously.

Everyone laughed at that.

"It's true," Captain Neema said, fixing an awful smile on his face. "We're enjoyed having you gents aboard. You need us again, give us a call. I'll be sure to give you our contact code before you leave."

Charlie scratched his head, and nodded. "Okay. Thanks!"

"I'm not positive, but this may be our rock coming up now," Qurank said. There was a hint of excitement in the Rootar's voice, and Charlie laughed as he and the others jumped to their feet. The exhilaration in the room was plain as they collected before the main display.

The great ringed world had disappeared aft. Ahead was only darkness, with the large bright dot of another giant world visible far off to the right. It was two-hundred-seventy million miles away, yet was still the size of a marble. Huge.

The star of this system, a blue-white sun twice the diameter of Earth's sun, lay far behind them. Yet its light was by no means faint even out here, and in only a moment, a pinpoint of light appeared ahead of them and quickly grew. Charlie leaned forward along with the others and stared.

The point grew as Ishkatar ate up the distance between them, and soon began to form a distinctly elongated shape, that Charlie instantly recognized. "It is," he said, peering at the screen. "It's another one."

In another minute, it was as if they were again approaching Oumuamua. This object had the same gray skin tinged with red, the same basic shape as Oumuamua, and was within a hundred meters of the same length. Ishkatar arrived at the huge rock, closed to within a half kilometer of it, and did a slow circuit, every instrument recording.

"I'm getting the same sort of readings from this one as from Oumuamua," Qurank said. "Except...there are no internal installations on this one. The native hollow spaces are vacant."

Charlie turned to Ragal and Casper. "You guys sense anything?"

"Yes," Casper said, immediately. "It feels like Oumuamua."

"I'll say," Keerby agreed. "This one has all the same signs of life."

Erma took a breath. "It's become aware of us."

The room was totally silent at that revelation.

Erma smiled, looking enchanted. "It's...I think shocked would be the right word. And...amazed."

"It feels like it's dreaming, too," Casper said. "And now we've become a part of the dream."

Erma shook her head. "This one seems to have been aware that it was not totally alone in the universe. It seems to know about ships like this...but only from a distance. We are the first to ever approach so closely."

"We're a lot farther in towards galactic center," Captain Neema said. "The star density's greater here, and that probably means more races live here. No wonder this one is aware of ships."

"But never this close," Erma said, smiling. "Never close enough to sense the life aboard. It is curious about us, and...and happy."

Everyone watched the huge rock as it turned slowly in the display, looking so much like Oumuamua that they could have been twins.

"This gives credence to the idea that they're a race," Charlie said. "I mean, if two of them look alike, they probably all do."

Ragal nodded. "You could be correct, Charlie."

Kippy prodded Max. "So do we bring Oumuamua here now?"

Max turned to Erma. "Can you communicate with this thing at all?"

The older elf shrugged. "I am sending happy thoughts at our meeting to it, but I cannot speak to it directly."

"Uh huh. Can you feel if it feels safe here?"

"Yes. I think I can say that. This one has a long memory of star systems visited, and never once has it been bothered. Any civilization advanced enough for star travel is not going to worry about one more asteroid passing through the system. All other races are unable to leave their worlds, and so no threat at all."

"What about others like itself?" Max asked.

Erma sighed. "It has no memory of meeting another like itself. How these things come into being is a complete mystery. But they are apparently very few in number, for the size of the galaxy."

"So do we bring Oumuamua here?" Charlie asked.

"Yep." Max nodded. "I'm working on it now."

Ricky frowned. "What's to be done? You said you just open the tunnel and pull Oumuamua through."

Max sighed. "If I just do that, Oumuamua will sail right on by this one and keep going. They have a difference in speed in their spaces of nearly two kilometers per second. I have to slow Oumuamua down to the speed that this one is moving."

Charlie gaped at that. "And how will you do that?"

Max grinned. "It's just kinetic energy. We'll convert it to something else and bleed it off."

"Something else?" Adrian asked. "Like what?"

"We have our choices. Any or all of the EM spectrum. What'll it be?"

Captain Neema narrowed his eyes. "We've detected no life in this system, so no one's attention is to be drawn. The visible part of the spectrum is the safest, I would think." He gave a harsh laugh. "If i am actually understanding what you plan."

Max nodded. "You're probably right. It's going to be quite a show, so maybe you want to put any filters you might have on your display."

The Captain turned to Diek. "Strap it down."

"Gotcha, Cap'n." Diek manipulated his controls. "Ready."

Max nodded. "Here we go --"

There was an immense flash of light in the display, as bright as if Ishkatar had come out of the Cooee directly next to a star. The screens darkened, but could not totally mute the flash, which went on for what seemed like a very long time before fading.

Charlie had squinted along with the others, and still wound up with faint blobs of light in his vision, which took a full minute to clear.

"Look!" Casper said, the glee clear in his voice.

Charlie blinked at the display, and it slowly came into focus.

Before them, two identical Oumuamuas floated in the darkness.

Erma clapped a hand to her cheek and beamed at them. "Oh! Are they ever surprised!" She blinked, and then gasped. "Oh! I think...yes...they can talk to each other!"

"I sense happiness!" Casper said.

"Lots of it!" Keerby added. "Wow!"

Erma closed her eyes, and nodded, as if listening to some inner song. "They can communicate," she repeated after a while. "They're both dreaming the same dream!"

Kippy turned to Charlie, a big grin on his face. "Oh, Charlie. It's beautiful! I sense light, and colors, and sounds...happy sounds, like birds singing."

"And something gentle, like rain on flowers," Adrian said. He sighed, and snuggled closer to Rick. "We did good!"

They watched Erma as she swayed gently side to side, a smile on her face. In the display beyond her, the two immense rocks drifted closer together, moving through the darkness on parallel courses now.

"This is amazing," Merl said, putting an arm around Ada. "To witness something like this is incredible."

"It's so romantic," Neelie said softly, her eyes aglow. "I'm so happy for them!"

To one side, Captain Neema gave out what sounded suspiciously like a sniff, and then followed it with a small cough. "That's something, boy. Yeah, it is."

Erma's eyes suddenly popped open. "Oumuamua is...I think this is a communication directed at us!"

"What are you getting?" Max said, his fascination obvious.

The older elf turned to him. "A picture. Of the ship you used to board her, returning to where you were before."

"We can't stay with her," Kippy said sadly. "Does she understand that?"

Erma frowned. "I see the ship coming into a big room through a large door. And all of us getting out, and walking to one corner of the room. There's a large ring set into the floor there. We all bend down and touch it."

A memory came to Charlie then, of the little bipeds doing just that before the last of them left Oumuamua. "I think I know what she wants."

"Do we go?" Kippy asked.

Charlie looked at him. "I think we should, yes. But anyone that doesn't want to go should stay here."

As it turned out, only the Captain and the four of his sons that had stayed aboard Ishkatar before felt they should stay behind. "This ain't for us. You go, Qurank, and represent Ishkatar."

Suits were made for Erma, and the Umwalds, and Max, and then Qurank boarded his ring and led them back to the shuttle. The flight across to Oumuamua was quick, and soon the shuttle settled onto the deck of the hangar for what Charlie felt certain would be the last time, at least for now.

They exited the shuttle, being careful in the lack of gravity, but even the Umwalds tooks well to the efficient suits, and Charlie led them all to the corner he remembered the little bipeds standing in before the last of them had left Oumuamua forever.

There, set into the floor on a little dais, was a silvery ring, perhaps a meter across. In the center of it was a graphic, of Oumuamua herslf, against the starry backdrop of space.

"What is it?" Ricky asked.

"I don't know," Charlie replied. "I only know that we should touch it."

He bent down slowly, and laid his gloved hands on the rim of the circle.

Inside his mind, he was suddenly among a crowd of people. An enormous crowd of people. But when he looked at them, it was to find they were not familiar at all. Not even human.

The crowd that surged around him consisted of small, brown-skinned bipeds with large ears, and smiles on their faces as they walked about, talking to each other in a totally unfamiliar tongue. There was laughter here, and a sort of joy at their togetherness, that was unlike anything Charlie had ever experienced before.

In the middle fo the crowd, a spire stood, just a shaft of reddish gray rock, pointing up into the light. The crowd flowed around it, and as each person passed they reached out a hand and brushed their fingers across the the smooth stone. Charlie knew immediately what that spire was. Or, what it represented.


He moved towards it, aware then that Kippy was walking beside him, and Rick, and Adrian, and all the others. Charlie reached out a hand and found Kippy's, and grasped it, determined not to let go. The crowd parted in front of them, the small bipeds smiling at them as they passed, and Charlie felt a definite sense of welcome from them. They approached the spire, and the crowd made room for them, and raised small, four-fingered hands, and pointed at the spire.

They want me to touch it, Charlie thought, and felt like this was a dream, but one in which he was awake and knew it was a dream.

He and Kippy and the others arrived at the spire, and Charlie felt a tug as Kippy raised the hand that held his, and pushed them both, knuckles to the stone. It was warm to the touch, and a sense of peace washed over him. That, and a feeling of great time and vast distances, almost overpowering in their strength.

But there also was a sense of pleasure at their touch, a response of affection, and a sense of...gratitude. Unmistakably, Charlie felt like he was being thanked.

The crowd of small bipeds moved closer, and as they passed Charlie he felt their hands brush briefly across his back. Pictures appeared in his mind, a series of glimpses of another world. The small aliens, working in shops together, tending plants in huge greenhouses together, studying in classes together, eating in large messhalls together, watching what could only be plays together, exercising in gymnasiums together, relaxing in lounges together, and even racked together in stasis, their eyes closed in blissful unawareness of time and space.

He was treated to a thousand views of life within the refuges inside Oumuamua, over a period of time that was simply staggering to contemplate. And throughout all of that time, never once so much as flagging, a sense that they and Oumuamua were in this together, and that the small aliens were grateful to be there.

Charlie knew then what this was about. The time had finally come for the small aliens to go, to leave Oumuamua and seek their destiny They had built their ship, and they were determined to return to their home system to see what had become of their world and their people. There was sadness at leaving Oumuamua, home for forty-six centuries of time. They could not stay, and they could not bear the thought of leaving their friend totally alone. So they had built this device, this ring in the corner of the hangar, and others in each hangar from which they departed Oumuamua. And as the people left, each paused at this ring, and left behind memories. Memories of life on Oumuamua.

They could not stay with Oumuamua, but they could leave her with the memories of their time with her, that she could dream in her dreams, as she tracked across the endless darkness of space. And those memories had sufficed to keep her company for a very long time, until Charlie and his friends had come along to remind her that the the things she dreamed were not a true reality, and that in her travels, she was still very much alone.

But that had changed now, and Charlie and his friends had been invited to leave memories of their own. To join this happy crowd of people, come and gone over a small eternity of time. To become a part of the treasury of memories that Oumuamua wished to keep, of all those that had meaning to her.

Beside him, Charlie felt Kippy heaving slowly, and knew that his boyfriend was crying. Charlie's own eyes were wet, and tears streamed down his face. They were not tears of sorrow, nor tears of joy, but rather simple tears of acceptance. They were a reaction to memories of struggle and hope, joy and despair, wonder and desperation. They were a reaction to the small miracle of a coincidence, in which a chance visit by a member of one unique species had meant the salvation of another. The power of that simple twist of fate was overwhelming, and Charlie knew he would never be able to forget what had happened here, in this place.

The crowds about them slowly receded, and Charlie felt a lightness, almost as if he was about to float away. It was time to go.

Charlie felt Kippy move beside him, and then they were standing again in the hangar, the others all about them. Charlie could see tears on more than one face, but felt it only right not to look, not to make the others share what they were feeling. Instead he turned to Kippy, and smiled at him. "I love you."

His boyfriend smiled at him through the clear bowl covering his head. "I love you, too, Charlie Boone."

Max spoke up then, sounding subdued himself. "Let's get going, guys."

They returned to the shuttle, and a very quiet Qurank flew them back to Ishkatar.

That vessel paced alongside Oumuamua and her new companion for a while longer, and then curved away to disappear into the night.

As the vessel retreated, the boys stood at the display, and watched as the two giants grew smaller, and then finally faded into the background of stars.

"Good luck," Kippy whispered. "And good travels."

* * * * * * *

They decided to let Captain Neema and his crew off the hook of taking them home to Earth. Max could transport them all back at once, and save Ishkatar the trouble of making the journey. Captain Neema seemed less than thrilled at this resolution, but not because it was costing him so much as a credit of his fee.

"I'm sorry to see this voyage done," the Rootar told them. "It was one o' the best we've ever had."

"Certainly the most incredible one, anyway," Qurank added, smiling at them. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been there myself."

"You gents need a ride again, you call us," Captain Neema went on. "Here's our contact code."

A small memory cube was passed to Charlie, who stuffed it into his pocket with a smile. "We certainly will."

Ragal and Casper, however, had elected to stay aboard, to return with Ishkatar to Engris. Even Casper was ready to relax a little, and revisit the pirate market to see what new treasures were to be found. Charlie promised to call them, and to include them the next time they headed out on a new adventure.

Hugs and goodbyes were traded with Erma and the Umwalds, who would go back to their own homes, Erma to finish her cake, and the Umwalds to resume whatever they had been doing when called away. None of this could have happened without their help, and Charlie was reminded again of the power of the group to accomplish things that none of them could have accomplished alone.

Erma spent a few moments with each of them before going, trading smiles and warm wishes, and collecting something in return from each of them which she simply described as a link, and a good one. Ragal came away from his meeting with her smiling, as did Casper. Qurank came away from his looking amazed and pleased in a sort of horrifying way, and returned to the tree to relate his encounter to the others.

"Remember what I said, you boys," she told Charlie and the others. "Relax, and let what comes to you come. It's all for the good, you hear?"

She gave Max a gentle slap on the shoulder and told him to mind his manners, kissed his cheek, and then waved her wooden spoon, and was gone.

The Umwalds shook hands with everyone and said they'd had a wonderful time, and then they also left.

Charlie was feeling unusually elated after all this, and he and the others ganged up on Keerby and gave him a group hug, to which the young elf responded with much enthusiasm, before promising to stay in touch, and then disappearing from among them with a rather gleeful pop of air. Charlie smiled after Keerby was gone, wondering if this was to be a pattern now, with Keerby showing up suddenly when needed, and then vanishing just as quickly when the deeds were done.

At long last it was just Charlie and Kip and Rick and Adrian, standing before Ragal and Casper, while Max waited patiently nearby. More hugs were exchanged, and promises to call when the opportunity presented itself. Casper was all smiles at the adventure he had just taken part in, and Ragal foretold that the youngster would be bouncing off the walls for some time to come.

Charlie wandered over to the Rootar tree, and thanked all the aliens again for their help in what had been done. He was a little suprpised to find he was going to miss their ugly grins and rough talk, and hoped that events might bring them together again. For their part, the Rootar seemed genuinely sorry to see the humans go. Qurank was the only one not on the tree, off somewhere, presumably, handling something important. That he was the go-for of the family seemed obvious now. Charlie asked Captain Neema to say goodbye for him.

As he turned to head back to the others, Qurank appeared, floating on his ring transport, and arrowed over to him, to stop beside him. "Charlie. I wanted to say farewell, mate."

Charlie smiled. "Thanks for everything, Qurank. We couldn't have done it without you."

The Rootar head beamed. "Thanks." He moved closer then. "I just wanted to tell you...that memory cube the Cap'n gave you? With our contact code? There's two settings on it. I wanted you to know that I left you guys something on the second one, okay?"

Charlie smiled. "Really? What?"

The Rootar offered up a fearsome chuckle. "Ah...look at it when you get home, okay? See you, Charlie."

Charlie stared after the retreating head a moment, and then rejoined the others.

"Ready?" Max asked, herding them into a group. The elf turned, and waved to Ragal and Casper, and Charlie and the others immediately followed suit.

There was a brief moment of darkness, and then the five of them were standing in Charlie's bedroom. The first thing he did was to check the alarm clock on his nightstand, and saw that Keerby's deft juggling of time had resulted in scarcely two hours going by since they had left. The elf was certainly good at what he did!

Charlie sighed, and turned to Max. "Thanks. Thanks again."

Max looked pleased. "Charlie, you're always thanking me for stuff I am happy you got me to do. This whole thing was pretty special. I should be thanking you."

Charlie nodded, and opened his arms. "Can I get a hug then?"

"Aw, geez. Okay." Max stepped forward, and they clapped each other on the back.

"Now me!" Kippy said, opening his arms wide.

"No kissing," Max warned, but grinned as Kippy embraced him.

Adrian and Rick each got a hug in, too, and then Max gave a big sigh and stepped away. "I gotta be gettin' back, okay?" He smiled then. "Call me if you need me, you hear?"

"We're not shy!" Kippy said, waving.

Max laughed, and then was gone.

Kippy sighed. "We're so lucky to have friends like that."

Ricky turned to Adrian, and smiled. "I need a kiss."

"Okay. Just one?"

Kippy sighed, and turned to Charlie, and pulled him close. "I had a wonderful time, Charlie, But I always do, with you."

Charlie smiled, and allowed himself to be hugged.

He felt the memory cube in his pocket then, and remembered Qurank's suggestion that they look at it when they got home. He reached down and stuck his hand in his pocket, trying to retrieve the device. Kippy made a happy sound, and rubbed his hips against Charlie's. Charlie pulled the cube from hs pocket and held it up in front of him, and Kippy looked surprised and took a step back.

"What did you think I was doing down there?" Charlie asked, grinning.

Kippy blew out an exasperated breath. "Oh, nothing. Nothing that matters now, anyway."

Ricky and Adrian pulled apart and looked over. "That the thing Captain Neema gave you?" Ricky asked.

"Uh huh. Qurank pulled me up just before we left and said he put something extra on it for us."

Kippy looked surprised, and then wary. "If it's Rootar porn, I'm gonna hurl."

Charlie laughed, and held up the small device. It was a simple cube, slightly larger than a sugar cube, and had one small button in the center, and a small, two-position slide on one side. "Looks simple enough."

He pushed the button, and a three-dimensional image appeared above his hand. The Ishkatar roared past them, guns firing, turned in a neat arc, and then roared back at them again. A gruff voice in an incomprehensible language said something, and then a series of characters in the universal com code stood out in bold relief.

"No missing that!" Ricky said, laughing. "About as subtle as a brick to the side of the head!"

They played it again, and laughed at the brazenness of it. As an ad, it would likley appeal only to someone who sauntered about with one hand on the pistol at his belt, and the other in the back pocket of the fellow ahead of him.

"Let's see what's on the other setting," Kippy said.

Charlie nodded, thumbed the slide to the second position, and pushed the button. Once again, a three-dimensional image appeared above his hand, only this time...

Kippy gasped. "That's Oumuamua!"

It was. Oumuamua, and her new companion, hanging side by side in the vastness of space. Even as they watched, the two moved off together, at first slowly, and then gaining speed, their vast bulks illuminated by the distant sun and the reflected glare of the ringed planet. They grew smaller and smaller, became points of light that briefly twinkled at them, and then disappeared altogether.

Kippy sighed. "Play it again."

They played it five times, and Charlie knew they would probably play it many times again in the future.

After the fifth time, Charlie set the cube on his nightstand, and sighed. "That Qurank. I had a feeling he was an old softie."

Kippy came closer, and opened his arms, and Charlie stepped into them happily.

"This was the best Valentine's Day, ever, Charlie. We brought happiness to two very special people."

Charlie smiled. "I didn't think of it that way until now, but you're right." He sighed. "I hope those two will be happy together."

Kippy nodded. "Valentine's Day isn't just abut love. It's also about being together. And about being happy that you are together."

Charlie nodded, and kissed his boyfriend. "I'm happy that you and I are together," he murmured softly.

"Look at that," Adrian said, pouting at Ricky. "It makes me feel neglected."

Ricky laughed. "Oh, we can't have that!" He stepped forward and opened his arms, too.

"Take off that darn dagger first," Adrian said. "It was sticking me the whole time we were out in space."

Ricky sighed, unbelted the dagger, and tossed it on the nightstand. "Now come here."

Adrian laughed, and danced into his boyfriend's arms.

Kippy turned his head, and smiled. "They're so in love."

Charlie smiled. "And we're not?"

"Yes, we are." Kippy kissed him and then smiled. "Happy Valentine's Day, Charlie."

"Happy Valentine's Day, Kip."

Kippy reached past Charlie and picked up the cube, and pushed the button again. Oumuamua and her companion appeared once more, ready to take flight.

"No one should ever be alone, that doesn't want to be alone," Kippy said, smiling.

'No," Charlie agreed. They turned their heads and pressed their cheeks together, and watched as two immense members of a strange and fascinating race moved off, side by side, and soon disappeared into the depths of the night.

Where they would go, what experiences they might have, Charlie and the others might never know. He smiled at the thought, and the one that followed. It didn't matter, really. What did matter was that they were together. Briefly, he recalled the memory ring in the hangar on Oumuamua, and the thousands upon thousands of fond members of a perhaps now vanished race, eager to bestow upon the friend that had saved them a gift they knew she would treasure forever. The gift of companionship, even if just in memory.

And now, with another member of her kind finally found, Oumuamua would be living the life she had only once dreamed. Living her wish, and the wish of all those who offer love, and kindness, and shelter, and need to have those things returned.

Never to be lonely again.

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