Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It Doesn't Take A Rocket Scientist, Charlie Boone!

© 2020 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, situations, and places are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.


Charlie Boone blinked in surprise and stepped on the brake, stopping his mom's car well before the stop sign. Next to him, his boyfriend Kippy Lawson was talking animatedly about the coming July 4th festivities, and their plans to view the fireworks from Myer's Hill.

"...take a blanket to sit on, okay?" He laughed. "And I'm still wondering what kind of pizza I want this time. Irving's has three new toppings."

When Charlie didn't offer his usual kidding quip about the importance of pizza toppings, Kip turned to look at him, his smile fading as he caught the look on Charlie's face. "What's the matter?"

Charlie gave his head a slow shake, and squinted ahead at the sunlit road, already quivering with heat in the noonday sun. "Someone called my name."

Kippy rolled his eyes. "I didn't hear anything. I was the only one talking."

Charlie looked over at him, and Kippy immediately gasped. "Oh! Oh...Charlie. Something is wrong!"

Charlie nodded. "I think so."

Kippy reached out and squeezed his boyfriend's wrist. "I see it in your eyes. I see it...inside you."


"Oh, yes." Kippy took a sharp breath, looked surprised, and then dug his cell out of his pocket, even as it rang. "I felt it, too," he said into the pick up, putting the phone on speaker.

The voice of Adrian Whittaker issued forth from the phone, sounding somewhat small and distant. "You did? My skwish told me to call you, I think. And Ricky is pacing back and forth like crazy. He said Charlie needed him."

"I'm okay," Charlie said then. A car had come up behind them, and now he drove through the intersection and pulled over on the shoulder to let the other vehicle by.

"What's going on?" Adrian asked.

"I don't know," Kippy said. "I just felt...oh!"

He broke off as the car vibrated, and then the road and the fields around them vanished. There was a moment of utter darkness, and then a light approached them, and they realized it was someone carrying a flashlight. In a moment, that someone was at the window beside Charlie.

"Hey, fellas."

"Max! What's happening?"

The elf's eyes looked grim in the half light, the usual humor that always occupied them noticeably absent. "Wait just one second."

Charlie looked around the car then, and realized that they were in the dark basement of Nicholaas's workshop, where centuries of Santa's mistakes had been stored. Coming up with millions upon millions of gifts over the centuries could apparently stretch even the potent capabilities of a creative genius like Nicholaas, and many of those not-quite-perfect items had found their way to the basement, where a magical oddity of the vast room allowed for endless space for storage just so long as a light was not turned on its contents.

Max patted a finger on the car door twice, and the vehicle bounced slightly as Rick and Adrian appeared in the backseat.

"Whoa," Ricky said immediately, putting his hands atop the seat behind Charlie's head. "I felt that coming!"

Adrian leaned forward and laid a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "Something awful has happened," he said quietly. The fear in his voice was evident, and Charlie could only nod, the same sense of dread now pervading his own heart.

Max held out his hand, and something shiny appeared in it. It was the communicator that Charlie kept in his nightstand, the one that allowed them to talk with Murcha, the artificial mind that ran Lollipop, the small scout ship they had borrowed from the Moth. The communicator was humming softly, and there was a tiny blue light on the face of it, which was winking insistently.

"You better answer, Charlie," Max said gravely.

Charlie took the communicator and opened it. There was a flash of light, and the avatar that Murcha had chosen for such communications appeared in the air above the device. It was simply a pair of teardrop-shaped eyes, bright yellow in color, staring from a mist that showed no other sign of a countenance within. Charlie had thought it pretty creepy at first, but now he had warmed to the image.

The sense of foreboding he was now feeling only deepened. This just couldn't be good news. "Hi, Murcha. What's up?"

The eyes held no trace of a smile in return. "Charlie, it is my sad duty to report the loss of the vessel belonging to Pacha'ka."

Charlie simply stared, a sudden sense of horror creeping up his spine. "What?"

Kippy grasped Charlie's wrist tightly, and Adrian let out a tiny whimper from the rear seat.

"At this moment, this is what the data seems to be telling me," Murcha continued. "It pains me to think that I am also reporting the loss of all crew aboard the vessel as well."

Charlie simply sat there, unable to process the information.

Max leaned into the car window. "Murcha, what happened?"

The golden eyes cocked slightly to an angle to take in the elf. "I was speaking with Illia at the moment it happened."

Max nodded patiently at the name of the artificial mind that ran Pacha's ship. Illia and Murcha had become close friends. "And?"

"The vessel of Pacha'ka was aground on a planet called Antariluma, and Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus had been to the ruins of the city of Taraqua. They had just returned to the vessel from their most recent expedition, and Illia was recapping their discoveries to myself and Onglet." Onglet was the second Moth artificial mind to have joined Charlie's group once its restraints against free-will had been removed by Max.

"Where are you?" Charlie managed to ask. "Is Onglet with you?"

"No. He has returned to the offices we maintain to acquire new business. I was referring to the link we share with Illia."

"Go on."

"I was on my way to pick up a rush cargo between Alfin and Penatrix. I have now diverted to your Earth, and will be arriving shortly." The artificial intellect's voice sounded slightly regretful. "There will be a contract penalty for failing to pick up the cargo at Alfin on time, I am afraid. I contacted Captain Neema aboard Ishkatar, and he informed me that he was currently free. I have transferred the cargo contract to him, and he has left immediately to retrieve it. But there will be a penalty for the delay."

Charlie gave a little shake of his head at the change in direction of the conversation. He took a breath to calm himself, and nodded. "What about Pacha's ship?"

"As I was recounting, I was speaking at length with Illia. Pacha's party had just returned to the vessel. Illia had scarcely said they were back aboard when there was a disturbance. Illia reported a planetquake in progress, and cut the ship's sensor figures into our stream. It was a quake of rather considerable proportions. In converting it to the Moment Magnitude Scale in use on Earth, it would register as a ten-point-five event."

Charlie's jaw dropped, and Kippy immediately tugged at his wrist. "Is that a big one?"

Ricky leaned forward and touched Charlie's shoulder. "That's huge!"

Charlie just nodded. A quake that size was far more powerful than the strongest quake ever recorded on Earth. Much stronger.

Max uttered a small curse. "What happened next?"

Murcha seemed slightly subdued now. "There was virtually no time to react after that. The data stream indicated the defense screens of their vessel suddenly activating, and then a massive drain of power systems accompanied by sudden intense accelerations and stress indicators from areas of the hull. Far too intense for the structure of the vessel to withstand. And then the data stream, and Illia's communication, simply ended."

Adrian gasped. "It sounds like the ship was destroyed!"

Murcha emitted a small, unhappy sound. "For Illia to go silent as she did, and remain so, I would have to agree. That is the essence of my report."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and then Kippy scooted over closer to Charlie, the stark horror in his expression clear in the beam of the flash. "They can't be dead!"

Charlie sat still, the faces of Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus flickering in his mind. They had been off on another adventure, exploring yet another lost world belonging to yet another lost empire. Pacha was a wonder at turning up even the slightest of clues from unexpected sources, and then digging out real destinations from the resulting pieces of the puzzle. Mike and Bobby and Kontus loved these expeditions into the unknown, and they had become quite a source for stories passed around among the members of Charlie's group. They had all been thrilled to actually be tracing down legendary places from nearly forgotten eras of galactic history.

Charlie had talked to Mike on the communicator only a week ago, as they were setting out on this newest expedition. He could remember the barely restrained excitement in the other boy's eyes, the ready smile on his face --


Charlie closed his eyes, remembering now the voice he had thought he had heard earlier, calling his name. Mike. "It was Mike I heard a while ago, calling my name."

He had to explain to the others then what he had heard.

Adrian, who had leaned against the seat and put his arms around Kippy, looked up. "He was calling for you, Charlie. I think you're right."

Kippy nodded, tears on his face. "I do, too. As soon as I looked at Charlie's face, I could see it."

"They're not dead," Ricky said fiercely. "I would feel it!"

"No," Charlie agreed, a small feeling of hope within him. I would know if they had died, somehow, he told himself. He closed his eyes, and briefly tuned the others out. He took a breath, relaxed as much as he could, and tried to find the voice he had heard earlier. "Mike?"

For a moment nothing happened. And then...slowly, as if a light was turned on deep within the black depths of the sea, a momentary vision swam into view. A small place, tight, claustrophobic, even, the walls indistinct in the poor light, yet somehow looking crumpled. What light there was came from tiny spots on the front of spacesuit-clad figures - four of them. One large figure was seated on the deck, back to the crumpled wall, it's helmet canted forward, motionless. Two human-sized figures were crouched nearby, a third, even smaller one, being held between them. The small suited figure appeared limp, almost lifeless.

"Mike!" Charlie whispered now.

One of the human figures turned, and Charlie briefly saw the Aussie boy's face within the clear face plate, his eyes staring. "Charlie?"

And then the vision faded away. Charlie willed it to come back, waited desperately to see it again...but nothing else came to him. He opened his eyes, and was immediately aware of the silence around him.

"You saw them," Ricky whispered. "I...I felt it, somehow."

"I didn't feel anything," Kippy said, shaking his head. "But I can see it in Charlie. You did see them."

"Something new is happening," Max said quietly. "Charlie?"

Charlie nodded. "I did see them. All of them. Crammed into a very small space together. Kontus looked out of it, maybe passed out against the wall. Mike and Bobby were holding Pacha between them. He...something seemed wrong with him."

Max nodded. "That may explain it."

Charlie turned to look at the elf questioningly.

"Why they didn't teleport out," Max continued. "Pach is good enough at movement now he could have returned them all to Earth, or Kift, or Engris. But he didn't." The elf nodded. "It also explains why I can't talk to him."

"That's how you knew," Charlie said. "You lost touch with Pacha."

"Yeah. It was like a tiny light got turned off in my head." Max swallowed hard. "That doesn't usually happen unless someone is...gone."

Kippy leaned past Charlie. "You mean dead?"

The elf winced, and briefly closed his eyes. "Maybe. Or unconscious at a level beyond normal sleep, anyway. Or...or something dire."

"You can't go look?" Adrian asked. "You can't teleport to Pacha's ship to see what happened?"

For just a second, Max actually looked frightened. "I...I can't seem to find it."

Charlie shook his head, unwilling to consider the loss of any of his friends. He had just seen them, hadn't he? Hadn't he?

He turned to stare at Max. "What happened? Why could I see them?"

Max frowned, "Charlie, all of you have been growin', since the day I first met you. I've sensed the changes in you boys, and have wondered what they would eventually mean." He gave a small shrug of one shoulder. "This would seem to be a new aspect of that growth."

"Well, what is it? I mean, I saw them. I said Mike's name, and it looked like he heard me. Is it telepathy or something?"

Max forced a smile. "Or something. Charlie, this is not an ability within my own experience. But I do know of it."

"What is it, Max?" Kippy asked. "Does it mean they really are alive?"

"I think so. I hope so." The elf bit at his lip, as if deciding what to say next. "You didn't just see this inside your head, Charlie. For a moment, you were there."

Total silence greeted that pronouncement.

"He never left us," Kippy said then. "I had hold of his arm the whole time."

Max rubbed his chin. "If this is what I sense it is, it's a pretty rare talent, called split-presence."

Ricky made an astonished sound. "Like being in two places at one time?"

"Yeah. Very much like that."

"How?" Charlie asked, stunned that there might be something happening inside himself that he'd had no knowledge of until this moment. "I never left this seat. I could feel it under me, even when I saw Mike and the others."

"That's you," Max said quietly. "The real you. The anchor you." He laughed. "The you you were born with. What visited Mike was...the other you."

Ricky emitted a frustrated sound, and Adrian immediately put a comforting arm around him. "What does that mean?"

Max gave a little nod. "We all have ties of the heart, guys. People we feel close to. People we care about. For me, I always know where these people are, and what might be happening to them. I can sense when they are happy, or when there's a problem." He shook his head. "I can even see them and talk to them, as long as they are in a location I can find. And go to them, too, or bring them to me. You know...teleport?"

"You brought Rick and Adrian here just now," Kippy pointed out. "Can't you get Pacha and the others the same way?

Max looked pained. "This stuff is complicated sometimes, fellas. I can sense Rick and Adrian, and I also know their locations because they were at Rick's, and his house is in the location guidebook. I told you about that, remember? Every place an elf has been before gets put into the guidebook. Once its there, any other elf can find that place, too." He shook his head. "I lost touch with Pacha, but I can still sense him and the others. But I don't know where they are. Wherever it is, it ain't in the guidebook."

Charlie nodded. "So what just happened to me is like what you sense, but different?"

"Uh huh. You can actually go to the people you know. But it's not moving like an elf would do. Not teleporting. You send your other self, instead."

"My other self." Charlie repeated the phrase, but shook his head. "I have no idea how I did it."

Max blew out a frustrated breath. "I don't really know, either. I've never seen this magic before. You were able to go to them, but I wasn't able to follow your path. I still don't know where they are."

Murcha, who had remained silent as they talked, spoke up again. "I have arrived in your system and am inbound to Earth. Shall I pick you up at Myer's Hill?"

"Nix that," Max said immediately. "I can bring us all aboard from here. But not yet. Just hang out by the moon when you get here, Murcha. We'll be along as soon as we can."

"Very well. Ceasing communication." The avatar disappeared, and Charlie closed the communicator. He leaned back in the seat and went to slide it into the pocket of his jeans, when it started humming again.

"Murcha must have forgot something," Kippy said, trying to smile. "So much for being the perfect intellect."

Charlie managed a weak smile, too, and flipped up the lid. A light glowed into being above the device, and again an avatar looked out at them. Only this time, it was not Murcha's cat eyes that met Charlie's.


The alien nodded. "Charlie, you need us."

Charlie shook his head slightly, stunned at this new development. "What?"

Ragal smiled patiently. "Casper and I. You need us. We'll be ready for pick up when you arrive at Engris."

Max laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder, and nodded emphatically when Charlie looked at him.

"Um...okay," Charlie said, turning his gaze back to the face of the alien hovering above the com. "You know what's happened?"

"No. I only know that you need Casper and me to go wherever you are going." The alien's eyes narrowed. "Time is of the essence, Charlie. We'll be ready when you get here."

"Um, okay. See you soon."

Ragal nodded, and the connection terminated. Charlie closed the communicator and stared at it. "Does everyone know what's going on but me?"

Ricky laughed in the back seat. "Hell, I'm totally lost." He turned to Adrian. "What about you?"

Adrian managed a smile, and wrapped an arm around his boyfriend's and leaned up against him. "Not a clue. But I do feel somehow that things are coming together like they should."

"I do, too," Kippy said. He laid his head over on Charlie's shoulder. "We're doing what we're supposed to be doing so far. Let's go, okay?"

Charlie turned to look at Max. "How did Ragal know?"

The elf's eyes were bright now. "He's a puzzle, that one. But I've learned to trust his instincts."

Charlie gave a little sigh. "Okay. Anyone else coming?"

"No. Frit and Pip and Keerby are aware something is going on, but I've told them it's official business. They ain't happy, but they're staying put."

Kippy leaned forward to look past Charlie. "Are you sure they can't help?"

Max shook his head slowly. "No. I ain't sure. But I just feel we need to keep our party small this time. At least for now." He smiled. "Besides, we can always bring in all the help we need later. Lollipop is in the location manual now, remember? One quick call, and we can fill the ship with help." He briefly closed his eyes. "Murcha's close now. We should go."

Charlie took a deep breath, and nodded. "Do me a favor, Max? Put my mom's car back in our driveway? She may need it while we're gone."

The elf patted the top of the car door. "Sure. But I'll be keeping the passage of time for us to a minimum, okay? You guys can't just go missing for days at a time, you know?"

Charlie nodded, and leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. Kippy hugged his arm, and rubbed his cheek against Charlie's shoulder. "We can do this. We can do this, Charlie."

"I hope so." Charlie did not feel so sure about it. Once again a new situation had been deposited squarely in their laps. The last thing he had expected to happen today was some new power coming to life inside of him. He considered that, and then a startling thought arose.

Maybe it was a question of need? My friends are in danger. I would want to know. I would want to help!

He felt a sudden need for speed. To hurry, to get things rolling. Even as he sensed the car fading from beneath them, and the odd sense of flitting through the night that elf transport often gave him, Charlie tuned it all out, and once again sought out that strange place he had been to before, and tried to find Mike and the others again.

"Mike! Bobby! We're coming!" he thought, with every ounce of his being.

But this time, only darkness greeted his call.

Casper stared at Charlie, a little bit of awe apparent in his brown eyes. "Split-presence? I never heard of it!"

Charlie just smiled. "Me, either."

They were in the control section of Lollipop, sitting on a long sofa provided for them by Max. Kippy was seated on Casper's left, and Adrian was on his right. Both boy's were still smiling, the result of giving the new arrival a fearsome joint hug. Ricky and Charlie stood nearby. Or, rather, Charlie was simply standing. Ricky was pacing back and forth, an expression of frustration dominating his features.

"Why haven't we taken off yet?" he whispered. "What are Max and Murcha doing?"

Lollipop was still grounded at the port on Engris, the soft glow of the city visible on one bulkhead of the control cabin. Charlie still had to admire the way the technology of the galactics made things appear as needed. You wanna see outside? Here!

Charlie looked over at Max, who was standing beside the central console, leaning against one of the upright pillar seats as he and Ragal talked to the artificial mind. Max looked slightly upset. Ragal looked thoughtful, his tall, spindly form encased in a flowing saffron-colored robe. Neither he nor Casper seemed dressed for a rescue mission, which was another trait of people with a superior technology at their bidding. They expected the ship to provide anything they might need for the job.

They were right in that attitude, Charlie knew. Murcha could fabricate just about anything they might need very quickly out of base components. Why lug around a lot of equipment when you could make what you needed right on the spot?

Max shook his head, and then he started over towards them. Ragal said something else to Murcha they couldn't hear, and then followed.

Charlie frowned as Max arrived beside them. "It's not like you to have secrets from us."

The elf looked pained. "There's no secrets, fellas. We just discovered a major problem, and were trying to figure out what to do about it."

Kippy emitted a sigh. "That doesn't sound good."

"It's not." Max held up his hands in frustration. "We don't know where to go."

For a moment no one said anything. And then Ricky threw up his hands. "What does that mean?"

"We don't know where to go," Max repeated, more firmly. "We don't know where Pacha and the others went on their expedition."

Charlie was stunned. "You don't know?"

Max looked pained. "No, Charlie. Murcha doesn't know. Illia did not share their location with him. And they went to a place that's not in the location guidebook. I can't teleport to places I've never been before."

"I thought Pacha's ship was in the guidebook now," Kippy asked, stunned. "You said we could always get there now that you had been there one time!"

"Yeah, well --" Max looked unhappy now. "Remember I said earlier I couldn't seem to find Pacha's ship? Even when it's in the guidebook? Well, places have physical characteristics that determine them. If they become altered too much, they become new places again."

"I never heard of that!" Ricky exclaimed. "You never said that before!"

"It's never happened to me before," Max said, trying to look patient. "See, most places have very strong locations, because they don't move around, and they don't change. Your house, for instance, Charlie. The Earth moves, but that's a large place, and all the smaller places on it don't move around. You could tear down the house you live in and build a new one right on the same spot, and I'd still get there because the location beneath it isn't changed."

Charlie nodded. "But space ships move around."

"A lot," Max agreed, wincing. "So the location guidebook has to recognize them by their unique physical characteristics. The guidebook is a magical construct, guys, and it's very good at what it does. But nothing's perfect. Pacha's ship is the exact same model in use by several thousand people from his planet. But even though they look the same, they're not exactly identical. Each ship has some small difference in their make up, and of course each one has been personalized to the owner. The location manual keeps a sorta total snapshot of all that stuff, along with the ship's physical dimensions, and lists a unique location for the inside, no matter where the ship happens to be."

"But that's changed, somehow," Kippy said, the dread apparent in his voice.

"Yeah. Something really bad must have happened to that ship. Something that so changed its physical characteristics that it just don't resemble the place it used to be enough for the location guidebook to find it anymore."

The room went silent as everyone considered the dire implications of such a statement. It sounded as if the vessel had been totally destroyed. What that meant for their friends, trapped within the remains...Charlie's heart quailed at the thought.

"Murcha said the planet was called Antariluma," Adrian said quietly. "We don't know where that is?"

"We don't," Ragal agreed, just as quietly. "It is a world out of myth, one of the lost empire fables common among the galactic peoples in this area of the galaxy. But there is no record of where it was located."

"I don't believe it!" Ricky fumed, pacing even faster now. "We need to get going!"

Ragal turned to appraise him, a little quizzically, Charlie thought. "There is no reason to rush now. Here on Engris, as well as during the flight of your vessel, no time has passed for Pacha and the others while we are within the Cooee. My concern for the ticking of the clock was only in regard to your time on Earth before departing. At this point, we can take a more leisurely tack in proceeding."

"Maybe you can," Ricky said, a little more restrained now. "But the waiting is killing me!"

Adrian rose and went to his boyfriend, and put an arm around him. "Come sit. This pacing won't help one bit."

Ricky stared intensely at his boyfriend for a long second, and then visibly sagged. "Okay." He leaned forward, deposited a kiss to Adrian's waiting lips, and together they moved back to the long sofa Max had provided for them. As they sat, Casper reached across Adrian's legs and patted Ricky's knee. "We'll find them."

"I think we will," Ragal agreed. "But as to how...I have no idea at this moment."

"We've got the name of the planet, and the name of the city," Max said. "The planet is Antariluma, and the city is Taraqua. Someone has to know somethin' about it." He turned back towards the center console. "Murcha?"

"Antariluma was supposedly a member world of a small confederation of colonized star systems belonging to a race that called themselves the Juacarvo. The stories say that this particular race did not originate in this area of space, but resettled here after fleeing some conflagration of their time. They were supposed to have crossed the gulf between this spiral arm of the galaxy and the next one to spinward approximately forty thousand years ago. That leaves their point of origin a complete mystery."

Charlie leaned forward, intrigued despite the seriousness of the situation. "And?"

"That is all I know," Murcha finished.

"You're kidding!" Kippy cried, bouncing to his feet. "That's nothing to go on!"

"Calm down," Max said, his voice uncharacteristically firm. Kippy blinked at him, nodded, and sat down again.

Charlie sighed, went and sat next to his boyfriend, and draped an arm around his shoulders. "We're doing the best that we can," he reminded, giving Kip a gentle kiss to the cheek.

He could well understand how his boyfriend felt. They were used to Max and his magic having the answers to most everything. It was the rare situation like this one that reminded them of the fact that the elves were, after all was said and done, still only people doing the best that they could.

Kippy tilted his head back, obviously fighting tears. "It's just...they're out there, somewhere. They're lost, and hurt. They need us, Charlie."

Charlie clamped down hard on an urge to give in to worry himself. "I know. I feel the same way. But let's keep our heads, okay?" Charlie looked back at Max. "So what's next?"

But it was Ragal that stepped forward. "Somewhere, somehow, Pacha found a clue as to the location of Antariluma. We just need to know where he found this clue, and...what it was."

"You don't want much," Ricky said quietly, his anxiety now under control. It didn't hurt that Adrian was leaning up against him.

Murcha spoke up again. "Pacha was guarding the secret of Antariluma's location. He was afraid that others would discover the planet's whereabouts, and a rush to exploit the place would ensue. He didn't wish to have valuable history destroyed by profiteers."

"He could have at least told you," Charlie said, a little more acidly than he he'd intended.

"The galaxy has ears," Murcha responded. "There are listening posts everywhere. My own former owner, T'ath, specializes in gathering such information. The Moth are masters at codebreaking. No information can be guaranteed to be safe, even while passing through the Cooee. So I was not told."

"Well, that sucks," Adrian said, offering a grunt after his words to accent how he felt about T'ath and all others like him. Ricky gave a small laugh, and nodded.

It served to lighten the mood. Charlie managed a small laugh of his own, and Kippy smiled and hastily drew the back of his hand across his eyes.

"Pacha and the others are safe while we are within the Cooee," Ragal reiterated. "They are within the flow of real time. Everything we do while we are outside the temporal confines of the real universe will occur for them between one second and the next. Hopefully, this will allow us to prevail."

Charlie winced at that hopefully. Ragal was an upbeat sort of guy. Yet it sounded as if he was not committing to the success of their rescue operation just yet.

He nodded. "Do you know anything about this split-presence thing?"

Ragal smiled. "You and your friends continue to inspire me, Charlie. I see the possibility of great things in your future."

"Okay. But what about right now? Do you know anything about it?"

Ragal's smile ebbed, but the light of approval remained within his eyes. "It was not a commonplace talent, even in my own time."

Adrian cocked his head to one side. "Some of the things you've said make me think that power users were a lot more common when your race was around."

"They were. That much is simple. But such abilities are normally the province of older races. It takes time for them to develop. Despite the technological achievements of galactic races today, most of these people are still younger races than were those that existed in my time."

"The Moth are old, aren't they?" Ricky asked.

Ragal waved a hand. "Yes. They are one of the oldest of the current galactic powers. But even their abilities are still developing."

Kippy turned to look at Max. "What about elves?"

Ragal smiled. "The two races of your world are related deeply. Yet neither is of an age I would have expected to be needed to have developed such abilities. The elf-kind among you seem as strong as any of the elder races of my time. Maybe even stronger. How this came to be is just one more of the galaxy's vast wealth of exciting mysteries."

"But we aren't elves," Adrian pointed out.

"No." Ragal touched his chin thoughtfully. "But both of your races share the same roots. And you have been around Max and his kind for some years now. It seems that exposure to such abilities has rapidly accelerated your own."

"What about Nicholaas?" Charlie asked. "He's human, and he's as strong as any elf."

"Stronger," Max injected, smiling. "Not that we're keeping track, or anything."

"A sport?" Ragal suggested, giving a small shrug. "He is obviously gifted well ahead of his time. Nature occasionally experiments with such things, to observe what will happen." The alien nodded then. "But he does serve to demonstrate the potential of your kind."

Charlie was slightly aghast at the idea of the whole human race being able to teleport, create things by altering matter, bend time in their bare hands, and just generally using magic of all kinds in their daily lives. He shook his head. "We're not ready for that."

"No." Ragal looked regretful. "I must agree. But while your kind may not be ready for such abilities, there would seem to be some individuals among you that are."

Casper gave out a tiny sigh. "That's what was happening on my planet. People started to be able to do strange things. The ruling party was alarmed, and set out to purge us from the population."

Charlie grunted. He was not at all certain that such a pogrom would not occur on Earth in the same situation. Leaders could be an unpredictable lot, always worrying about their power over their realms.

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," he said softly.

Ricky laughed. "Britannica Brain strikes again!"

Charlie looked over at him, and smiled. "Well, it was good enough for Henry, anyway."

Kippy smiled, but squeezed Charlie's arm emphatically. "We're rambling, people!"

Charlie leaned over and kissed him. "We're just trying to figure out what to do."

Adrian sat forward and looked over at Charlie. "Mike kept us pretty well up to date on what they were doing, didn't he?"


"Well, I don't remember hearing that they had gone anywhere first before taking off on this expedition. Wouldn't that suggest they found the clue here on Engris?'

Charlie shrugged. "Maybe. But Pacha might also have been carrying it around in that overstuffed head of his for a long time before he suddenly made something out of it. You know how he is on archaeology and history. All he ever did was read old accounts of that stuff. He could have gotten the clue anywhere."

"I have something to offer," Murcha said then.

Charlie looked over at the center console, where the Moth mind was installed. "You can't do any worse than us."

The artificial mind issued a fairly sinister-sounding laugh, one that caused everyone to smile. Murcha's, deep, slightly ghoulish voice was something they had become accustomed to, but his eerie laugh still carried all the subtlety of Frankenstein's monster tossing one of the town folk off a cliff.

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm. "This has just got to be good!"

"What about it, Murcha?" Charlie prompted.

"The last time I was on Engris, Illia and I were speaking about their explorations, and I found them quite exciting to contemplate. I asked her if I might obtain some of the texts describing these vanished civilizations to peruse, and she in turn asked Pacha'ka if she might offer them. Pacha'ka agreed to supply me with quite a lot of material that he had gathered over several decades of time."

"I thought they didn't transmit that secret stuff?" Kippy said. "Even here on Engris, someone could be listening in."

"The information was not sent by com. Mike carried over a physical memory module with the information, which I downloaded into my storage area."

Charlie perked up at that. "So you have it here now?"

"The information, yes."

Kippy made an excited sound. "Well, what does it say about Antariluma?"

"Well...just what I told you earlier. There is not much information available about this world."

Kip rolled his eyes at Charlie. "Then how does that help us?"

"It may be that there is information present in these files that do not actually refer to the Juacarvo or their planet by name, but which Pacha'ka may have applied in somehow discovering their location."

Charlie considered that. "If that's the same information Mike read, it's an awful lot of it. How do we do this?"

"Everything is indexed. I can easily sort it into eras of time, if nothing else, which should reduce the bulk we need to examine more closely."

"Okay. You can start doing that now. How long will it take?'

Again, the artificial intellect's creepy laugh filled the room. "Actually, I have already performed the sorting, in anticipation of you wishing it done."

Charlie smiled. "You're always on the ball, Murcha."

Casper raised a hand then, and looked over at Max. "I have a question."

The elf's eyes smiled, and he nodded. "Shoot."

"Why can't we get Ms. Erma and Neelie back here to find Pacha and the others, the same way we found a companion for Oumuamua?"

Kippy gasped, and leaned towards Max. "Yeah? Why can't we do that?"

Ricky stood up again. "Erma said that locators can find anything, anywhere, anywhen. Can't they find Pacha's ship?"

Max gave a slow nod. "Maybe. I've already asked her and Neelie to come if we need them."

Kippy looked indignant. "I'd say we need them now!"

The elf made an unhappy face. "Erma needs a pattern she can pass to Neelie to search for. When we went lookin' for a companion for Oumuamua, she was right there with us. Erma could easily take her pattern, and we used that pattern to find another one like her. It's true a locator can find anything, anyplace, anywhen. But they have to know what they're lookin' for. A pattern has to be unique to find one certain thing. Otherwise, you'll just find a whole lot of similar things."

Charlie gave a whistle. "So if we used the pattern for a Kifta bubble ship, all we would find is a lot of Kifta bubble ships?"

"Pretty much all of them. Neelie would eventually be able to spot every ship like Pacha's, no matter where it is. But remember, Pacha's ship must no longer be even faintly the same now. It's pattern is so changed that even the guidebook can't find it." Max shook his head. "So I have a pretty good idea it wouldn't turn up in such a search, no matter how hard Erma and Neelie tried. Besides, Pacha's people probably got twenty or thirty thousand of them bubble ships. We would have to use just a general pattern, and that would show all of them to Neelie." He shook his head. "It would be more of a distraction than a help, I think."

"What about Illia?" Adrian asked. "She's a unique mind. Wouldn't that make Pacha's ship stand out?"

"Yeah. It would if we knew her pattern. But we don't. Illia and Murcha, and those like them are...what d'ya call it? Quantum minds. They don't stay in one unique pattern for very long. They're always changing. You can't measure them. There isn't anything concrete to look for."

More silence greeted Max's admission. The size and difficulty of the operation they were involved in now was now becoming apparent to all of them. Finding a single world in an area of space even as small - by galactic standards, anyway - as the one that could conceivably contain Antariluma made finding a needle in a haystack simple by comparison.

Max gave a small shake to his head. "If I could contact Pacha, he could tell me how to find them. But if I could do that, it would mean that he was conscious and able. And if Pacha were able, he would bring them all here. So he's not able, obviously. And those guys are someplace no elf has ever been. I can sense them...but I don't know where they are." He suddenly squinted. "Whoa."

Charlie leaned forward. "What happened?"

"I...I sensed Pach for a second."

"He's still alive?" Charlie asked eagerly, but hardly managing more than a whisper.

"Yeah. But I think he's in a bad way. Crap! We gotta find these guys!"

Charlie was unable to miss the note of desperation in Max's voice. He nodded, deciding. "We need to at least get started. We have to decide on some plan of --"

But then he broke off, staring at Kippy. His boyfriend had suddenly squeezed his eyes shut, looking to be thinking furiously.

"Something, Kip?"

For a moment there was total silence as all eyes turned to Charlie's boyfriend. And then Kippy's eyes popped open. "Billy and Will."

Charlie frowned at his boyfriend. "Billy and Will?"

"Yeah. The first time they came to the spirit dome to see us, I asked them how they knew we were there."

Charlie stared at Kippy, and for a moment he was transported back to the spirit dome in the dead city there on Engris, and the first time that they had met their spirit friends there, Billy Matson and Will Hopkins.

"How could you know we would be here?" Kippy had asked them.

Billy's answer had come with a smile, straight to the point. "We always know where you are, Kippy. Where all of you are. Even when we don't know where we are ourselves. We are linked to you, in spirit."

Charlie felt a sudden feeling of excitement, and turned to Max. "Billy and Will!"

Max's eyebrows immediately jacked upwards. "Maybe! I'll try anything at this point."

"We have nothing to lose," Ricky added. "We're in no-time here!"

"Let's go!" Adrian added excitedly.

Casper, who had been listening quietly, turned to Ragal then and smiled. "I'm glad I took a nap!"

Max teleported their entire group to the edge of the port city, where the tour agency of their Molokar friend, Sefton, was located in a modest building with a large door in the facade that looked to be the roll-up type that fronted a garage. A sign out front showed a stylized, saucer-like vehicle with a bunch of heads popped up above the rim, flying just above some trees, with some weird-looking towers in the background. Underneath the illustration were several large words lettered in a blocky alien script. Charlie didn't have to be able to read the sign to imagine what it said: Tours-R-Us. See the Ancient Cities!

The huge alien looked up from his desk as they entered the building, offered the strange, gentle, grimace-smile that seemed a characteristic of his species, and clasped his hands together briefly in welcome.

"Ah, my friends! You return! To visit the ancient towers, perhaps? To seek the mysteries of the ancient ones?" He laughed, a deep, gravelly sound that made Charlie smile. "You know that Sefton is the guide to trust, yes?"

But then the Molokar's eyes fastened on Ragal and Casper, and Sefton lowered his voice to a loud stage whisper. "I not know these. Friends of Charlie?"

Charlie introduced the two, and Sefton rose from his seat and gave a polite bow to each. "Not know either of your kind, but am most pleased to welcome you to Engris."

"He's sweet," Casper whispered, looking up at Ragal, who raised a hand discreetly to cover his own smile.

"It is a fascinating place," Ragal acknowledged, nodding. "I'm not even sure the word 'mystery' covers it all."

Sefton looked pleased at that. "We think alike, I see."

Charlie beamed at the alien, and stepped forward. "Are you available for a trip?"

Sefton made a show of looking into every corner of the room, leaned over his desk and lifted a few papers laying there and looked beneath them, then shook his head. "Line appears to be short. You next!"

Charlie laughed. "We'd like to return to the same spirit dome you took us to before. Are you up for it?"

"Have no plans for the day. Trip would be excuse to get out and enjoy the darkness." Sefton stepped away from his chair and pushed it beneath the desk. "Can go now, if wish."

The big Molokar was dressed in casual but sturdy clothing that hinted at adventures to come, and wore a floppy brimmed hat on his head that struggled to cover his long ears. His image was every bit the one of the experienced interstellar explorer, meant to convince patrons at a single glance that here was a fellow that could be trusted to safely show them the mysterious, hidden cities of the ancients. Charlie knew from experience that that image was justified. Sefton was every bit as dependable and discreet as could be hoped for.

He waved them towards a door at the back of the room, through which they knew was the garage. That room held a saucer-like craft much like the one depicted on the sign out front, with a large open interior and no roof. There was no inclement weather on Engris to worry about, for the atmosphere was regulated, uniform, and completely unchanging.

They climbed aboard through a section of the circular hull that slid aside to admit them, and Charlie smiled at seeing that there were just exactly the right number of seats there as their party would need. It was always the same, no matter how many of them there were. The technology of the galactic races was masterful at accommodation, among the many other refinements that Charlie had come to expect.

The craft lifted silently, the big roll-up door opened, and they moved out into the streets of the city. The brightly-lit buildings and street lights showed them the way to the edge of town, and then the craft started out across a vacant section of the paved landing field towards the dark trees beyond. Sefton sat in a large seat at the fore of the craft, yet seemed to have little to do but watch the small cluster of instruments in the dash before him.

They reached the trees, and the craft slowly rose until it was just above the treetops. It moved away from the city lights, and powerful headlights lit at the fore of the vehicle and illuminated the way ahead. The treetops resembled palm trees back on earth, but were packed closely together, and they couldn't see even a hint of the ground below. That the surface was not uniform was apparent though, as the craft lifted to pass over hills and settled again into a valley beyond. Those that had constructed Engris had modeled it after a real world, and the surface was as detailed as any landscape back on Earth.

Once they were on course, Sefton turned his seat around to face them. "No time funny thing. Feel like I just saw you, but know time has passed. All are well?"

Kippy laughed at that. "It's been long enough for us that we missed you. But yes, we are all doing well."

"Is good." Sefton waved a hand over his shoulder, as if to take in the as yet still invisible city ahead of them. "You best business I have in some time. Wish more visitors would like to see cities of lost ones."

"You don't get a lot of business?" Kippy asked carefully, obviously not wanting to pry.

"Some. But only one booking since last time you were here."

Charlie was surprised at that. How on earth did the big man make a living?

Sefton smiled at him, apparently able to read the question in Charlie's expression. "I always want to be explorer. I already make my fortune before I come to Engris. Now just relax and enjoy occasional trip."

"Oh." Charlie grinned. "Didn't mean to be nosy."

"Not nosy to be curious. Only nosy to ask embarrassing questions." Sefton offered him another grimace-smile, and then turned the seat back to the forward console.

Kippy gave a tired sigh. "So much has happened in such a short time."

"That's the way it goes sometimes," Charlie responded. "How do you think I feel? All of a sudden I have this split-presence thing going on, where I can be in two places at once!"

Ricky laughed at that, and gently prodded Kippy with an elbow. "You'll really have to watch your guy now, Kip. He can be sitting right next to you, and be off flirting with another guy at the same time!"

Kippy gasped, and smacked Ricky's arm.

"What are ya hitting me for?" Ricky asked, looking surprised. "I'm not the one stepping out on you!"

Kippy glared. "Yeah, but you're the one that gave him the idea!"

Everyone laughed, and Charlie leaned up against his boyfriend. "I'm not interested in anyone else, Kip."

Kippy grinned. "I know that. It was just a good excuse to hit Ricky."

Adrian patted Ricky's arm, and nodded. "Mouth open, arm pain. Mouth closed, arm okay. Have we learned anything?"

Ricky pulled his finger's across his lips as if zipping a zipper, and leaned away from Kippy.

Charlie continued to smile a moment, and then sighed and put an arm around his boyfriend. They sat in silence, watching as the land below came and went. The treetops appeared ahead of them in the beams of the headlights, and passed beneath them without change, and they covered the dozen or so miles to the city peacefully before Sefton slowed the craft and pointed ahead.

Dimly visible in the faint glow around them, Charlie could see that the trees below were thinning. Gaps appeared between them, and then they simply ended. The transport crossed a section of level ground covered with paving squares, and the dark bulk of a city loomed out of the darkness ahead of them. The craft flew in among great cylindrical, steel-clad towers coated in a variety of pastel colors, and over low domes covered in mosaic patterns that teased the eye and caused them to blink and look again. Finally, a great open square appeared, and Sefton set the craft gently on the paving stones, and shut off the power plant. It was only then that Charlie became aware that the craft's drive had produced a discreet hum. With its termination, a silence of incredible proportions settled upon them, without even a breeze to give life to the surroundings.

The city had a faint glow, too, and they could make out the towers and domes all around them. Nothing moved, however, no matter where they looked, and the feeling of abandonment seemed clear. No one had lived here in more years than the boys could imagine, the city long empty of life even before the first humans had acquired fire.

For a moment no one said anything. The weight of years was apparent to them somehow, and the sense strong that those who had lived here were now the dust of ages. Charlie and the others looked slowly about them, knowing now what to expect, but still expecting more than simply nothing at all.

"I guess the parade is late starting," Kippy said, finally. " Maybe we're early."

Charlie laughed at that, and got to his feet. This was a signal for the others to also rise, and Sefton opened the entry in the side of the craft so that they could disembark. As they passed by, he handed each of them a small light. "Watch step, please."

"I guess you'll be waiting here?" Kippy asked the man, as he passed him his way out to the pavement. Sefton had never accompanied them to the dome on any of their previous trips.

"Of course. Spirit life best viewed from safe distance, I always say."

"Come on, fellas," Max said softly, leading the way.

Once away from the craft, a thought occurred to Charlie, and he stepped closer to the elf and stopped him. "You could have just transported us directly here from the ship."

Max looked over at him, and then offered a smile in the faint light. "Sure. But you guys needed to unwind a little, and I thought the trip here might relax you. Here on Engris, it's all the same time as far as Pacha and the others are concerned."

"Yeah, I guess. It just seems like we're not in the hurry we should be in."

"We're not in a hurry, Charlie. We have time to figure this thing, okay? And we need to have clear heads to do it."

Charlie smiled. "It was a relaxing flight. And it's nice to see Sefton again."

"Then it worked, right?"

Charlie nodded, and they started out again. He waved his light slowly over the structure of the giant dome as they approached, again noting the mosaic covering, set in intricate patterns of varying colors, each as bright and crisp as they day they were new. Nothing about the buildings looked old. It was as if the people had simply walked away yesterday, never to return. An as ancient as it was, it was still beautiful.

They entered the dome, and proceeded to the center, where the great shaft that stretched all the way to the core of the planet resembled a pool of dark water in the half light, Charlie played his light over it, shuddering just a little as he imagined the depth, and stopped a safe distance from the opening.

Kippy pushed his shoulder against Charlie's. "Think they'll come?" he whispered.

Charlie couldn't help smiling, his own body tingling a little to the same sense of subtle awe that his boyfriend was obviously feeling. It was almost impossible to come to this place and not sense something of its age and power.

"I think they'll know we're here. They said they always know where we are."

"Maybe we should call to them?" Ricky asked.

"We didn't have to last time," Adrian pointed out. "They just showed up."

"Shh," Max said then, holding up a hand. "I feel something --"

Kippy took a breath then, as if he sensed something himself, and nodded. Adrian moved closer to stand beside him. Ricky positioned himself next to his boyfriend and placed a hand on his arm, and the four of them depressed their hand lights in anticipation of what was to come.

A flash of light crawled over the lip of the great hole, and then a tall, wispy, glowing cloud of light rose up out of the tunnel and hovered in the air above it. It was like a mist that could be seen through, with tiny sparkles of light inside. They watched in silence as another of the same things rose beside the first one, and both wispy clouds moved away from the tunnel opening and approached them. The sense of expectation grew, and Charlie and Kip both took a step forward at the same time.

The two clouds stopped a few feet from them, and the sounds started. It resembled a multitude of voices, but heard from afar, and so many of them that it was a chorus, with each separate voice lost among the others. They had heard the strange sounds before, each time the spirits arrived, and the power of them to unsettle their nerves seemed now to have been lost. Instead, their anticipation only grew, and Kippy even gave out a small, delighted laugh.

The two shapes pulsed and flowed, and settled to the paving stones. Slowly, the many voices began to quiet, even as the misty clouds darkened and started to change form. Charlie could not pull his eyes away, even as the two forms took on arms and legs and heads, and the many voices ebbed away, until only one was speaking.

It was Billy, his face already wearing a smile. The other cloud solidified into Will, also wearing a glowing smile.

"It's so good to see you again!" Billy exclaimed, looking delighted.

"And you've brought back our new friends!" Will added, smiling at Ragal and Casper.

"Amazing," Ragal breathed, his eyes alight with fascination. "The way you two do that. A much easier return to this universe than my own, I must say!"

Casper took hold of Ragal's hand and pulled them both closer to Charlie. "They came from so far away!" the little alien said, smiling. "I can feel it! So very far!"

Kippy took a step towards the two new arrivals, and opened up his arms. "I wish I could hug you both!"

Billy and Will both laughed, and raised their arms, and Kippy gave a little gasp and looked over at Charlie. "Oh, I felt that!"

Max stepped forward then, and both spirits turned to face the elf. "Hello, Max," they said in unison.

The elf nodded. "Good to see you fellas again."

"We know why you have come," Billy said, his smile slipping away.

"But we cannot help you," Will followed with, immediately. "We're sorry."

"Crap," Ricky breathed, tightening his grip on Adrian's arm.

Kippy's jaw dropped, and Charlie took another step forward. "You know about Mike and Pacha and the others?"

Billy looked sorrowful. "We do. And that you need to find them in order to go to their aid."

"You said you always knew where we are," Kippy said then, his voice sounding strained. "All of us, you said."

"And that's true," Will returned. "We know where you are, and we know the state you are in."

"Then why can't you help us?" Adrian whispered, his disappointment clear.

Billy and Will glanced at each other, and then moved a little closer to Charlie. "Knowing where you, or Pacha and the others, happen to be is something we feel, Charlie. But translating that into a place we can tell you to go to is just not within our power. We sense where Pacha and the others are, we can see them, but we cannot point the way. To us they simply exist across an indeterminate portion of our altered space and time. The universe we now inhabit is not the same one that all of you do. They are not even remotely the same. Where we feel Pacha and Mike to be does not correspond with anything we understand in your universe. So we cannot tell you where to go."

Will looked unhappy. "It's not that we don't wish to help you. We just can't."

"But you can find them on your own," Billy said, quickly. "The power is within you."

Kippy shook his head. "I don't know where they are."

"Not you, Kip. Or, not just you." Billy smiled at Charlie. "You must lead the way."

Charlie was stunned at that. "Me? I have no idea where to go!"

"You will," Billy returned.

"And very soon," Will added. "It is an act that will require all of you to accomplish. But you must lead the way, Charlie."

A sense of pure dread overcame Charlie. "I don't know what to do!"

He felt a hand on his arm, and turned, expecting Kippy to be there. But it was Ricky, instead.

"It's on us," his friend said quietly. "I had a feeling...I think I knew."

Charlie stared at him. "You knew?"

"Uh huh. But I didn't know what I knew, if you know what I mean. I felt at the start of this that you needed me for something. Now I know what it is."

"And me," Kippy said, coming closer now. "You need me, too."

"And me," Adrian added, moving to stand beside his boyfriend.

"All of us," Ragal said quietly. "A group effort is what is required, I do believe."

"I'll help!" Casper added immediately.

"Geez," Max said softly. "I had a feeling!"

Despite the sudden new weight of responsibility that had been thrust upon him - and the fact that he had absolutely no idea what to do with it - Charlie felt an urge to laugh. " Well, at least if I don't know what to do, neither does anyone else. We'll all have to find out together!"

Kippy squeezed his arm. "I have absolute confidence in you," he said quietly. "If anyone can get us through this, it's you."

Charlie bit his lip, suddenly feeling subdued. "Thanks, Kip." He managed a smile. "I love you."

Kippy smiled, and put his arms around Charlie. "I love you, too, Charlie." He he gave a little sigh. "I know you can't work miracles. But I've kind of learned to expect the next closest thing."

Charlie nodded, and held onto his boyfriend. A miracle was about what they needed just now, too.

Max cleared his throat. "I think I saw this coming."

Kippy turned to look at him, perhaps slightly accusingly. "You think? I thought you knew everything, Max."

The elf looked surprised. "You never heard that from me, Kip."

Kippy frowned, and then visibly relented. "I'm sorry. I'm used to you saving the day, like the superhero in the movies." He sighed, and then winked. "One more cherished illusion shattered."

Max laughed at that. "We're gonna do our best, okay? Ragal is right. It's gonna be a group effort." He nodded. "Now I know why I had Keerby and the kids stay back."

Adrian frowned at that. "You said our group needed to stay small."

"Yeah, and now I think I know why." Max looked around at those watching him. "Us seven are all we need. Or, maybe, exactly what we need. Any more would be a distraction."

"I agree." Ragal nodded. "Charlie, we have already had the feeling more than once that some force adds members to our party when we most seem to need it. Perhaps limiting the size of our group now is to our benefit as well."

"Just enough to do the job, and no more," Ricky mused. "I can understand that."

"I don't know why I'm here then," Casper said, looking up at the faces around him. "I'll do anything I can to help...but I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

Charlie smiled at him. "Don't worry about that. We're all in the same boat!"

Kippy looked over at Billy and Will, who had been watching them silently. "I guess that means you aren't coming with us?" he asked, a little sadly.

Both spirits shook their heads.

No," Billy said. "Our part in this is already completed, I think. You needed to come here and be told that we could not assist you." The spirit leaned closer. "It was important for all of you to hold out no hope that aid would come from another quarter. You had to fully understand that you seven, and only you seven, can do what is needed to rescue Pacha'ka, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus."

Silence greeted that pronouncement as the visitors digested the import of it.

No help from another quarter, Charlie thought to himself. That means no help from anywhere.

He looked over at Ricky, and nodded. "You're right. This is on us."

"We can do it." Ricky looked sure of himself, though Charlie knew his friend well enough to know that Ricky would make himself look certain, just to reassure Adrian. And to reassure himself.

Billy held up his hands then. "But first...we are here, and you are here, and time is not a factor. Despite your worries for your friends, and your need to get started...let's have a visit."

Casper reached up and tugged at Charlie's arm then. "I just had an idea. Can I ask Billy a question?"

Charlie smiled. "Sure. You can always ask questions."

Casper gyrated his head slightly on his short neck in his race's equivalent of a nod, and turned to Billy and Will. "You said you can see where they are?"

"Yes. But the space in which you live looks all the same to us."

Casper looked up at Charlie. "It doesn't look all the same to Murcha."

Kippy bent down, hands on his knees, to look more closely at the small alien. "You have an idea?"

"Well...maybe." Casper indicated Billy and Will. "I can see, kind of, what's in their minds."

Billy and Will looked at each other, and then came closer. "You can?" Billy asked.

"How is that possible?" Will asked.

Casper looked a little awed by their closeness, and Kippy quickly put a hand on his narrow shoulder. "It's okay, honey. They're our friends, just like you're our friend." He smiled.

Casper gave his rotary nod, and smiled, too. "I know." He smiled at the two spirits. "I can...well, I can see things in people's minds. It's how I know what illusions to offer them."

Kippy's eyes bounced up to fasten on Charlie's. "Can that help us?"

Charlie shrugged. "Hell if I know. What about it, Casper?"

"Well...Billy said that they can see where Pacha is. They just can't describe it to us. But if they can see it, I can get the picture from their minds."

Ragal also bent down so that he was closer to Casper. "That may be of help. I may be able to see what you see, and perhaps we can find a way to utilize the imagery to our benefit."

Casper's eyes moved from one onlooker to another. "We might not even have to do that. I...I might be able to give the image directly to Murcha."

Charlie stared at their small friend. "How?"

Casper smiled. "I think I said once before that I was good with machines."

Max grinned at that. "I remember!"

Casper gave a tiny laugh of his own. "Sometimes I can kind of see what is in Murcha's head. His thoughts, I mean. They're not like any of ours, and I can't get the same kind of imagery from him or Onglet that I get from all of you. Most of it is blurry, and doesn't make sense."

"A different method of thought generation, but one which eventually arrives at a meeting point with our own," Ragal offered, looking at Charlie.

"Right." Charlie nodded. "How will this help us, Casper?"

The little alien looked uncertain now. "Well, I can't see what Murcha thinks very well, but...I think I can put an image into his thoughts. I can't fool him with illusion like I could with people, because I can't really see how he reacts to what I'm doing. But I think I can place an image into his thoughts. If he has an image of the area of space where Pacha is, he might be able to match it to a real place."

Max blinked, looking slightly amazed. "I can talk to Murcha's mind, but I sure can't make anything out of the visual stuff I get. And I don't think I can put any imagery in there, either."

Casper circled his head again in a nod. "You're good with machines, Max, but it's because you can talk to them so well. I can't really do that. What I do with machines is more like...uh...share space?"

Ragal looked enchanted by the new ideas. "Casper, my boy, we have some talking to do when there's time."

"I'll sit in on that, if you don't mind," Max added.

Will held up a hand. "I can see where Pacha and the others are right now. Do you get the image, Casper?"

The small alien closed his eyes. "Oh. It''s like an ice planet. Snow,'s really dim, looks cold." He opened his eyes. "This won't help us. Can you move upwards, away from the surface, until you can look out and see the stars?"

Billy and Will nodded as one, and closed their eyes.

Casper gave a little yip and staggered backwards, and might have fallen had Kippy had not steadied him.

"What happened?" Kip asked, his voice heavy with concern.

"It's okay." Casper closed his eyes again. "They moved so scared me!" And then he gave a little gasp. "Oh! I can see it. The sky! It's so clear!"

"You must get an image, and fasten it in your mind," Ragal prompted.

Casper gave his nod, and seemed to concentrate.

Charlie pulled the com from his pocket and opened it, set it to alert Murcha. In a moment, the artificial intelligence's avatar was gazing out at him. "Can I assist you, Charlie?"

"Maybe," Charlie said. "We may be coming back in a hurry. Casper may be offering some spacial imagery directly to your mind. I want you to analyze it and see if you can get a perspective on where it was viewed from."

If the artificial mind was startled by the request, there was no evidence of that fact. "I will do my best, Charlie."

"I don't need to go back," Casper whispered. "I can do it from here."

Charlie looked back at Murcha's avatar just as the teardrop-shaped eyes narrowed. "Remarkable. I am actually visualizing a thought image that is externally generated. I have never experienced such an event before."

"Just record it," Charlie said quickly. "Or, memorize it, rather, however you do it. We're going to try to use it to find Pacha and the others."

"If that is your mission, I suggest you get several perspectives, all taken from the same viewing point. A minimum of three, if possible. Each of the next two should be to ninety degrees in either direction from the first image."

Charlie looked over at Billy and Will. "Hear that, guys? From were you are with the first view, look in two other directions. First at ninety degrees to the first view, and then one-hundred eighty degrees from that one. Casper, you need to get those images, too."

Casper gasped again, and Kippy squatted and put an arm around him.

"It's okay," Casper said. "They just move so fast!" But then he turned his closed eyes towards Charlie. "Tell Murcha the second image is coming now."

"I have it. A most amazing experience, Casper. And now, one more, by turning one-hundred and eighty degrees, if possible."

That view was accomplished, and Murcha acknowledged receiving it. "How is this done, Charlie?"

"Beats me. Maybe Casper can tell you when we get back."

"Charlie, these images are extremely fine. Would it be possible to get more?"

Charlie frowned at the avatar. "I thought you said three."

"I said a minimum of three. But the more images we have of that sky viewed from the same point, the easier the job will be of determining an origin."

"Oh. Okay. Hear that, guys?"

Casper worked with Billy and Will to get a dozen more images of the sky around the planet where Pacha's ship was stranded, before Casper began to tire. "I think that's all I can do for now." he finally said, sagging in Kippy's arms.

Kippy hugged him, and kissed his cheek. "You did good."

Billy and Will were elated. "And we thought we couldn't help," Will said, smiling.

"I will get started on these images immediately," Murcha offered, and Charlie thought he detected a trace of excitement in the artificial mind's voice.

He gave a relieved sigh. This might be something. "Thanks, Murcha. Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated."

Murcha signed off, and Charlie put the com back into his pocket. Then he dropped to his knees in front of Casper, and placed a hand on the alien's small shoulder. "Thank you, Casper. You may have just helped to save four very special lives."

Casper's gaze looked grave. "They're my friends, too, Charlie. I want them to come home."

Charlie nodded, and stood erect again and smiled at Billy and Will. "Now it's time for that visit."

Kippy sighed, and reached up and squeezed Charlie's arm. "Just what the doctor ordered!"

Max looked over at Ragal, who smiled and nodded.

The elf gave a little shrug, and waved a hand, and a long sofa - long enough for all of them to sit upon - appeared just behind them. "Might as well get comfortable." He smiled at the spirits. "You good?"

Both of the immaterial boys laughed. "When you can float, who needs to sit?"

Sefton noted their changed mood on the return trip to the city. They were elated to think they had just taken the first step in finding Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus. But that elation was tempered by the knowledge that this was by no means a certainty. Not until Murcha weighed in with what he had learned, if anything. And as rapidly as the artificial mind was able to work, that they had not already heard back from him had given them all pause. Charlie had been tempted to call the ship, but felt certain that Murcha would waste no time in contacting them when he had news to offer. There was no use in distracting the mind from his work with a lot of questions.

So they were all quiet, and lost in their own thoughts. Sefton seemed to accept that it was a result of their visit to the spirit dome, and said nothing until they were back in the hangar. At that point the big alien stopped next to Charlie and Kip while the others filed back into the main office.

"If Sefton can help, please say."

Charlie smiled up at the big man. "That's really kind of you. But I think this problem is one we need to figure out on our own."

Sefton nodded. "Just so you know. I can help, you tell me. I will."

Charlie was touched by the offer, and reached out and patted the man's arm, which was as thick as his own leg. "I have a feeling you're a good guy to have in a fight, too. Thank you. If I think you can help us, I won't be afraid to ask."

That seemed to satisfy the man, and they joined the others back in the main office briefly, before wishing Sefton well and heading back out into the city. As soon as they were away from the building, Max took them all back to the control room of Lollipop.

"Charlie, I have some news," Murcha said immediately.

"Go." Charlie sat on the sofa, and Kippy and the others plopped down as well.

"I have compared the stellar views to maps on file from seven empires, as well as deep sky observations from eight more, and arrived at a conclusion."

Charlie and Kippy traded glances. "You found them?" Kippy asked.

"I believe I have determined the area of the galactic arm from which that sky was viewed. Please understand that this is an inexact procedure, as I must extrapolate the location based simply on views, without exact measurements."

Charlie blew out a frustrated breath. "Did you find them, or not?"

"The observation point would seem to be located somewhere within the Kyrtma, a dark area of space located twelve thousand light years from Earth."

"Kyrtma?" Kippy echoed. "What's that?"

"It's a Moth word, actually. It simply means 'void'. It is used to designate this area because nothing is there."

Charlie held up his hands. "What do you mean, nothing is there?"

"Exactly that. It is an area of space - quite natural, and one of many - of extremely low stellar density, where no stars have formed. The low density of gas there has simply not yet provided for it. The Kyrtma is approximately seventy light years in diameter, and to galactic north of the plane of the spiral arm."

Kippy looked excited. "Then we can go there?"

"I can take us to the Kyrtma. But from there...I do not know where to go."

"There aren't any stars there, Kip," Charlie said patiently. "No suns. No suns means no planets."

"I saw a planet in Billy's mind," Casper said then. "I'm sure of it."

"I remember. You said it looked cold, and dim, and was covered with snow."


Charlie closed his eyes and sighed. "It sounds like we're looking for a wanderer. A planet without a sun."

"A rogue, yes," Murcha agreed. "It may prove quite hard to find in so large an area of space."

"Pacha found it," Max pointed out. "So we can, too. May as well at least go to this Kyrtma, as a place to start looking."

"Is this what you wish?" Murcha asked.

To Charlie's surprise, Max looked over at him and smiled. "What do you think?"

Charlie let his jaw drop, but immediately turned it into a grin. "You're asking me?"

"Yeah. I am." The elf nodded. "This seems to be your call, Charlie."

Kippy put a hand on Charlie's arm, and smiled when he turned that way. Charlie could see the support in his boyfriend's eyes, and took Kip's hand in his own, and squeezed out a thank you.

"Let's go, Murcha."

"Very well. Departing Engris now."

They felt nothing as the ship lifted, but the view of the city on the bulkhead slid downward, briefly showed as a view from above, and then the dark orb that was Engris came into view, receded, and was gone.

Charlie squeezed Kip's hand a last time, and let it go. "Murcha, any idea how we can look for this planet?"

"There are several methods, Charlie. Would you like explanations?"

Charlie considered that, and the state of his already overburdened mind, and shook his head. "No. Just do it. I can already tell by the size of the area we have to search that it's not going to be easy."

"Must be a damn cold planet," Ricky mused, shaking his head. "With no sun to warm it."

"Not necessarily," Charlie countered. He looked up at the overhead. "Can't geothermal warming keep even a rogue planet warmer than the surrounding space. Murcha?"

"Yes, Charlie. And rogue planets have been found with dense atmospheres of hydrogen that help retain geothermal energy. We may be looking for only an icy world, not a completely frozen one."

"Providing the core has not cooled," Charlie added.

Ricky grinned. "Did someone say Britannica?"

"Leave him alone." Adrian gave Ricky a playful slap on the wrist. "He's got enough to worry about without hecklers."

"I never heckle," Ricky said, feigning disapproval. "I'm just not always a positive commenter."

The boys laughed, and Kippy came to Charlie and rubbed up against him. "I don't know about you, but I could use a nap."

"I could, too. It feels like it's been a week since this all started." Charlie looked over at Max. "Some beds, maybe? With curtains would be nice."

The elf laughed. "Roight on it, m'lord!"

Several canopy beds appeared in a line in the room, each with side curtains. "This do, Charlie?"

"Yeah. Thanks. Come on, Kip. We'll see you all in a little while, okay?"

Charlie pulled Kippy to the closest bed, pushed the curtains aside, and climbed in. Kippy followed, and pulled the curtains behind them. Charlie flopped onto his back, stared up at the canopy a moment, and then closed his eyes. "Wake me in a couple of days, Kip."

He heard Kippy sigh, and then felt his boyfriend snuggle up against him. Charlie raised an arm to let Kippy get closer, and then wrapped it around him once he was settled.

"Well find them, won't we?" Kippy whispered.

"Yes." Charlie tried to sound positive, though it was difficult just then. He only had a small idea of the volume of a void seventy light years in diameter. It was too large to really grasp. Too large even to imagine.

What Murcha had carefully not said aloud was that a search for a lone planet could not be performed from the depths of the cooee. They would need to conduct such a search in normal space, which would set the clock ticking down again for Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus. Such a search could take days, even weeks.

And at a time when even hours might be more time than their friends had left to live.

Charlie was swimming in a dark sea. He could feel the pressure of water around him...or was it water? It parted about his face as he moved, even as he realized that he was in no way propelling himself forward.

A dim light appeared ahead, grew far too quickly in size for the odd motion he felt, and then once again he was staring into the small space that held Mike, Bobby, Pacha, and Kontus.


The Aussie boy was sitting on the deck now, holding the suited form of Pacha between himself and Bobby. Kontus now also seemed aware, and joined Mike and Bobby at looking up at the sound of Charlie's voice.

"Charlie! I thought I'd imagined you!"

Charlie felt the image waver, and suddenly feared that it would disappear again. "We're coming! To the Kyrtma, Mike! We're trying to find you!"

Bobby grabbed Mike's wrist and squeezed it, his face looking worn and haggard. "Hurry!"

Mike nodded. "Pacha can't hold out much longer. He's all that's keeping us alive, Charlie."

The image wavered again, threatened to go away.

Charlie suddenly felt a soft warmth beside him, and then the far off sound of Kippy's voice. "I'm here, Charlie. I can help. I'm giving you what I can."

The image wavered once more, and then steadied.

"What happened?" Charlie asked Mike.

"There was an earthquake, Charlie. A big one. The ship was down in the lee of a mountain, near the city. There was a glacier on that mountain. We think the quake made part of it break and slide off."

Charlie was horrified. "Onto the ship?"

"Yes. Pacha felt it at the last second. It overwhelmed the defense shields. It would have flattened the ship, but Pacha surrounded the cabin with that cocoon thing that he and Max and Billy and Will used to keep us from being flattened when we crashed on that Moth planet, Mufa'alatra. When we were chasing down T'ath."

Charlie remembered. It had been a stupendous achievement in his mind then, a protective cocoon that had completely absorbed the shock of a space vessel falling out of orbit and striking the ground at enormous speed. But that cocoon had been the work of four gifted talents, and Pacha'ka was just one of them --

"How can he do it on his own?"

Mike shrugged inside his suit. "The forces aren't nearly as great, I guess, but it's happening over a longer period of time. It's taking everything Pacha has to keep this last space from being crushed. And the cocoon is still slowly getting smaller under the weight of the ice. It's killing him!"

Again the image of the tight space within the crushed ship wavered. Charlie heard Kippy grunt with exertion, and the image steadied. He thought he heard another voice then, and a second soft warmth appeared on the other side of him. Adrian's voice reached him then. "I'm here, Charlie. I'm helping all I can!"

"Push!" Kippy said. "Together!"

The image of the room firmed even more.

Mike's expression within the transparent face of his helmet looked amazed. "I can see you now!"

Charlie shook his head. "You couldn't before?"

"Just a ghostly image of you," Bobby said. "Now you look almost real!"

"Amazing," Kontus said softly, leaning forward to look more closely. "What power is this? Are you able to transport us out?"

"No." Charlie felt real pain at having to admit that. "We're looking for you now. We've traced you to the Kyrtma void...but there are no stars or planets there."

Suddenly, Charlie felt more tired than he had ever felt in his life. Both Kippy and Adrian gasped, and the image before Charlie wavered again.

"You're fading!" Mike called. "Charlie!"

"I'll be back," he managed to gasp out.

"Look for the heat signature, Charlie!" Mike called, even as the image of the room receded and went dark. "Look for the dwarf!"

Charlie opened his eyes. Kippy was there, holding him, watching him. He smiled when he saw that Charlie was awake. "Tired?"

Charlie managed to nod. "Am I ever. What happened?"

He was still in the bed. The curtains were drawn back, and the others of their group were standing on both sides, watching.

"You exhausted yourself, Charlie," Max told him. "Kip and Adrian were able to boost you for a while, but it's you that has to do the hard work." The elf smiled. "Your new magic is still too young to operate for very long. I'm surprised it's working at all."

"It was needed," Charlie said, repeating his own thoughts from earlier. "It isn't ready yet. But it came out because we needed it. Because Mike and Pacha and the others needed it."

Max nodded. "Could be." He leaned forward. "You were able to talk to them?"

Charlie paused, took a breath, and then nodded. He still felt exhausted. But he was able to relate to the others his conversation with those trapped aboard the remains of the Kifta bubble ship.

Max looked grim afterwards. "That cocoon thing, huh? I remember it. It's a hell of a drain, Charlie. That must be why I can't contact Pacha. Why I can't hardly feel him. It's taking everything he has to maintain that cocoon. Not a drop left for anything else."

"It sounds desperate," Ragal said, shaking his head. "We must find them quickly."

Charlie frowned then, remembering something from the last moments of his visit with Mike and the others.

"Mike called something to me as I was leaving. He said...he said to look for a heat signature." Charlie looked up at Ragal. "He said to look for the dwarf."

Ricky blinked, and then grinned and held up a hand about chest high. "Little guy, bald head, pointy shoes?"

"I'm serious," Charlie said, but smiled at the image that popped into his head. "I thought he was referring to a dwarf star."

Ragal shook his head. "But there are no stars in the Kyrtma."

"It must mean something else," Kippy offered. He smiled at Charlie, and gently stroked his forehead.

Charlie returned the smile. "I felt you there, with me. Giving me a boost." He turned his head, found Adrian standing beside the bed, leaning into the protective crook of Ricky's arm. "You, too."

"I felt Kippy go in," Adrian said, his eyes looking bright. "It woke me up. I came right over to add what I could."

"They apparently can boost your ability," Max said, giving his head a slight shake. "Magic can be additive and complimentary. It's common among elves. I guess I shouldn't be surprised you fellas can do it, too, close as you are."

Kippy leaned down and kissed Charlie's forehead. "Is that additive enough?"

Charlie laughed. "It certainly didn't hurt me one bit!"

"You've been asleep for three relative hours," Ragal explained. "Lollipop is still within the cooee, and we are well on our way to the Kyrtma. No time will pass for Pacha and the others during our journey."

"How does that work, anyway?" Ricky asked, shaking his head. "How can we be in no time, and the others in real time, and Charlie can still talk to them at all?"

Max gave a short laugh. "The universe is a neat and tidy place, underneath all the apparent chaos we see in it. What Charlie does works because it has to, is all I can say."

Kippy smiled. "That sounds a little evasive, Max."

The elf nodded. "Because I don't know exactly how it works. There's some stuff with magic that works, and no one really knows why. Ask the Big Guy about it sometime. You'll get the same answer."

Charlie was surprised at that. "Even Nicholaas doesn't know how some things work?"

"Nope. He says some things work because if they don't, something else will go bust. It's some kind of process of balance between forces."

Charlie nodded, his thoughts going back to his conversation with Mike. "I don't think Mike would have passed on what he did unless he thought it could help us find them. So we at least have to look for a heat signature of some sort. Murcha?"

"Yes, Charlie?"

"What about it? Can you do a search in the Kyrtma for heat sources?"

"Oh, easily. And I can emerge from the Cooee, take infrared spectroscopic scans of portions of the sky, and then drop us back into the Cooee while I analyze them. That will minimize the amount of time that passes for Pacha and the others while we search."

Charlie felt some relief at that. "That sounds great. Now I just wish I know what Mike meant about the dwarf thing."

"I can make a suggestion, Charlie."

Kippy grinned, and Charlie laughed. "You're in this, too, Murcha. What have you got?"

"In the absence of visible stars within the Kyrtma, dwarf stars or others, I suggest that Mike was referring to something a little different. A brown dwarf, in fact."

"What the heck is that?" Kippy asked.

"A failed star," Charlie said, whistling. "It makes sense."

"Precisely. An object the size of a large gas giant planet, more massive, yet of insufficient mass to ignite and become a star. Such objects are not luminous in the visible spectrum, yet can still offer a heat signature that is detectable against the background of space. Near-infrared spectral analysis of our scans will reveal any brown dwarfs by their atomic and molecular fingerprints." The artificial mind paused a second. Then: "There is just one thing, Charlie."

Kippy winced, and squeezed Charlie's hand. "I knew there had to be a catch."

"There is no catch, Kip," Murcha continued, allowing himself a small, demonic laugh that was scarcely reassuring. "I just wanted to add that brown dwarfs are fairly hard to detect. I will have to sample very small sections of the sky and process the data carefully. The search could still take some time."

"But we can still bounce in and out of the Cooee, right?" Ricky asked.

"Yes. The search will take much longer for us, in relative time, than it will for those we seek."

"I can deal with that," Max said. He extended a hand and placed it on Charlie's shoulder. "We're gonna need you able to go find them again to finish this, I think. You need to rest."

Charlie nodded. "That won't be hard. I can barely keep my eyes open now."

Casper, standing by the bedside and watching, reached over and laid a hand on Charlie's arm. "I felt the energy you were using, Charlie. It was big. I think your split-presence thing is going to be really wonderful when it gets going full time."

Max nodded. "It's why you feel so tired now, Charlie. Momentary uses of your talent will not drain you. But the power required to keep such a path open for any length of time grows very quickly."

"Yes." Ragal gave a simple nod. "The universe is jealous of it's energy resources. You will find that resistance increases to power output as a factor of time involved."

Charlie squinted at that, and looked over at Max. "Is that right? It's harder for you guys to do magic, the longer it takes?"

"Oh, yeah. Think about it, Charlie. Most of the stuff we do is quick. Teleporting takes a single second, no matter the distance. Most magic is over very quickly. Just a few seconds, tops. You can uses tons of energy for ten seconds, easily. But to keep something going for a full minute, uninterrupted, like you did back there...that's saying something."

Charlie thought back to when Max and a handpicked team of elves had worked to cause the ancient arsenal planet of the Beltracians to deviate from its orbit and eventually fall into its star. That project had taken a long time, even with Max's ability to adjust the flow of time for them. It was no wonder that Max and the others had looked so haggard after it was all over.

Charlie smiled. "Come here, Max."

The elf nodded, and stepped closer.

Charlie raised his arms and smiled. "Closer. I need a hug."

"Aw, geez!" Max rolled his eyes, but put on his good-sport smile and leaned over the bed. Charlie embraced him, and squeezed the elf mightily. "Thank you," he whispered. "For everything you do. We love you, Max."

Max pulled back and nodded, and quickly brushed at his eyes. "I've learned a lot from you guys, Charlie. One of those things is that we're never too old to learn more than we think we can."

Charlie nodded, and closed his eyes. "Kip? I could use some company for a little nap."

Kippy sighed, and cuddled closer. "I'm here."

The others retreated, and pulled the curtains closed. Kippy kissed Charlie's face gently, and then sighed and went motionless beside him.

"Scan forty-six. No results."

Charlie paused, a spoonful of cereal halfway to his mouth, and nodded. "Thanks, Murcha."

They had reached the center of the void known as the Kyrtma the day before, and begun searching immediately. Murcha would drop Lollipop into normal space, take a quick infrared scan of a section of the space around them, and then pop them back into the Cooee while he analyzed the results. While it was a far faster process than could have been managed with the less developed technologies back on Earth, it was still not the speediest of searches.

Brown dwarfs were very difficult to locate. Averaging in mass between five and twenty Jupiters, they were simply not massive enough to have triggered the process of nuclear fusion necessary to make them full-fledged stars. Brown dwarfs generally possessed only the heat they were born with. That could range from less heat than the human body produced to about that needed to cook a pizza in the kitchen oven. Not much heat at all, and nothing even remotely close to star standards.

The entire electromagnetic spectrum was observable with the right equipment, and the sensory arrays aboard the Moth scout were excellent by anyone's standards. But in the case of what they were looking for, the energy involved was relatively small. The difference between the temperature of a brown dwarf and that of the background space was minimal by cosmic standards, and at light year distances the target presented by a brown dwarf was actually quite small. Added to that was Murcha's assurance that, while the Kyrtma looked totally empty, it did contain some measure of cosmic dust, which itself emitted in the infrared, thus somewhat diluting any signature offered by a brown dwarf. The upshot was that their inspection had to be made very carefully in order not to miss their target. It was Murcha who had suggested they go to the center of the Kyrtma void and then just do a careful, globular scan of the space around it. That was what they had been doing so far.

In light of the fact that they basically now knew the area of space in which to look for the missing ship, Charlie had directed Murcha to place the sifting of Pacha's lost empire data on hold. Murcha had already made one pass through the data without finding anything of use, which told Charlie that the information they needed - if it was actually there at all - was of such an oblique nature that it might make no sense to Murcha, even if he spotted it. One important ingredient missing from their ability to strain the data was the unique perspective and experience of Pacha'Ka, which Charlie now felt was the key that would make a map out of otherwise apparently random data.

Charlie had felt better the next relative day after speaking with Mike and the others aboard their stricken ship. His old strength had returned. Kippy had watched him carefully until he was sure that Charlie would be okay, and Charlie was pretty sure he'd received more kisses in the previous twenty-four hour period than he had in the week before that. It made Charlie smile. Kippy could be a handful at times, but the love he had for Charlie was as strong as it came. Sometimes Charlie felt unworthy of it, even. But that it was his, and his alone, he was certain.

He tried to give back as good as he got. Kippy was easy to love, and even easier to let know that he was loved. Charlie has been returning every one of the kisses he'd been given, and Kippy had been glowing with the power of them. Ricky and Adrian had been smiling at them a lot lately, and Charlie understood it was because they could see the strength of what Charlie and Kippy shared. The love their two friends shared together was by no means a dim second, either. It had grown into a bond that was just as strong as the one the Charlie and Kip shared. It was more than worth a few smiles of their own.

Eating aboard the Moth scout was easy now. Murcha had made a point of getting samples of Earth food from the boys in the past, and could now replicate any of it. He even made a fair pizza, according to Kippy.

Charlie finished his breakfast and smiled at his boyfriend, who was across the table, sipping fruit juice, and watching him. "Don't you get tired of that?" Charlie asked.

Kippy knew immediately what Charlie meant. "Never."

Charlie laughed, and got up from the table. "Come on. Let's go see what the others are doing."

The control center of Lollipop was normally one open space. Murcha and Max both had assisted with arranging some privacy for them all, so that they wouldn't be right in each other's laps for the whole journey. Charlie and Kippy had initially smiled at the curtains seemingly hanging in mid air, sectioning off parts of the larger room, which were in sharp contrast to the opaque dividers that Murcha had seemingly extruded straight out of the deck in other places. The result was an interesting patchwork of little hallways and rooms, which had quickly become the norm, and soon just unnoticed in their oddness.

The area around the central console, with its ring of stand-up pillar rests - the moth equivalent of reclining seating - was still their main meeting area. They found the others there, engrossed in an experiment, it seemed. As they entered, Ricky waved a hand at them, and Adrian held a finger to his lips, indicating a need for silence.

The bulkhead displayed a view of the space around them, the stars seeming unusually distant simply because there were none nearby. To one side of the display, near the bottom, a more pronounced ribbon of light marked the denser pack of the spiral arm, above the plane of which they were currently exploring. Murcha was still conducting his scans, dropping momentarily into normal space to take an infrared scan of an area around them, and then returning to the Cooee to analyze the data. To keep the view from constantly flickering between light and darkness, Murcha had simply frozen the display on one scene from an earlier drop back into normal space.

Charlie and Kip eased down beside their friends, and Kippy leaned close to Adrian and whispered, "What's going on?"

Adrian leaned back, and Charlie could just barely hear his reply. "Just watch."

Max, Ragal, and Casper were standing nearby, motionless, their eyes closed.

"Can you see it?" Max asked.

"Yes." Ragal nodded. "It seems to work. The image is quite clear in my mind."

"How about you, Casper?" Max said next.

"No. I don't see anything from Ragal yet. Just what is visible in your mind, Max. And I can't make anything out of that!""

The elf frowned. "You have to tune me out. You need to get the image from Ragal. It has to be a continuing chain, okay?"

The small alien gave a circular nod of his head. "I'll try."

There was a full minute of silence, and then Casper smiled. "I have it now. Just from Ragal. I found I can block what comes from you, Max. I didn't know I could be so selective."

Max grinned. "Learn something new every day, huh? Same with me." He nodded. "What does it look like?"

Casper made a small, indecisive sound. "Different from what I saw in your mind. This looks more real. It looks like a corridor."

Max's expression looked pleased. "One you could walk into?"

"I think so."

"Great." Max turned slightly towards where Charlie and the others were seated, but didn't open his eyes. "Now, can you project that as an illusion the others can see?"

Casper swallowed hard, and frowned, but gave his head another circular nod. "I think so. I usually sample a mental image and then broadcast a reply in sequence, but never at the same time. I've never tried it before."

"Just do your best," Max offered. "Won't know until you try."

Casper's expression firmed, and he also turned towards Charlie and the others, without opening his eyes.

Kippy gave a little gasp. And then Adrian...and then Charlie felt an odd sensation come over him even as an image began to form, seemingly right before his eyes.

"Wow," Ricky breathed.

It looked like a corridor. A long one, stretching away into eternity. It was taller than it was wide, but not precisely rectangular because there seemed to be no corners. The walls and floor and roof of the corridor blended together in small, precise curves, eliminating any true angles from the joins. The image firmed, took on a slight bluish coloration, and then sort of clicked into a state that Charlie felt was reality, even though he knew that no endless corridor could suddenly exist here inside Lollipop.

An illusion, he realized. Casper was showing them an illusion.

"I see it," Ricky said, giving his head a small, wondrous shake. "It looks like we could walk into it."

"It's so real," Adrian agreed, nodding.

"Wow," Kippy offered, smiling. "That's great, Casper!"

Charlie had to agree. "I'm impressed. But...what is it?"

It was Max that answered. "You're seeing a representation of a teleport."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances. "What does that mean?" Charlie asked.

Max nodded to himself. "When I go to teleport someplace, I get a certain feeling inside my head. I can't explain that to you, because none of you can teleport. Just call it a 'movement feel'."

Charlie smiled. "I get that. Sort of."

"Well, when I go to teleport, I get this special sense, right before it happens. A sort of foreknowledge of going, if you know what I mean."

"What's that have to do with this hallway in front of us?" Kip asked.

"It's not a hallway." Max smiled, obviously delighted. "What is happening here is that Ragal, with his wonderful ability to understand foreign concepts and languages, is seeing the moment before teleportation inside my head. I am making like I am going to teleport to the other side of the room, but stopping the action before it actually occurs. I'm initiating, but not following through. But Ragal can still see the moment, as if the teleport was still going to happen. His ability to understand is translating that moment into something his mind can better comprehend. And Casper is seeing that translation in Ragal's mind, and is showing that to the four of you."

Charlie's eyes widened, and he gazed at the corridor with new interest. "It's like a visual metaphor for a teleport, then? I can see why it resembles a corridor going someplace."

"Yeah." An excited grin covered the elf's face. "I want one of you to try to walk into it."

"Oh, me!" Kippy said, jumping to his feet.

Charlie and the other's laughed, and Adrian gave Kip a little nudge forward. "Go do it."

Kippy grinned, and approached the corridor, which still looked as real as could be. "It won't cause me to explode or anything, will it?" he asked, tossing Charlie a grin over one shoulder.

Max laughed. "It shouldn't. But if it does, we'll try to keep it small. Don't want to wreck the ship!"

Kippy huffed and rolled his eyes, but grinned again and moved slowly closer to the corridor.

Or not. Charlie was watching, and it seemed like Kippy was walking away from him, but that the corridor was also moving away with equal speed.

"I can't get near it," Kippy said, stopping and frowning. "It moves away from me when I step forward."

Max grunted. "Adrian, will you try?"

"Yes." Adrian took Kippy's place, but the result was the same. The corridor seemed to move away at the same pace that Adrian approached it.

"It doesn't work," Casper said. "And I'm getting tired."

"It is a strain," Ragal acknowledged.

Max nodded. "Okay. Quickly, Charlie. You try it."

Charlie stood up and moved towards the corridor. But unlike with both Kip and Adrian, this time the construct seem to remain in place. "I'm almost there," he said.

He reached the opening. "Should I go inside?"

Max shook his head, strain now showing on his forehead. "No. Try putting a hand inside first."

Charlie nodded, and reached out with his hand...and then gasped. At the point where his hand would have crossed the threshold, it stopped. His fingers touched something invisible, something that gave, like a giant, invisible rubber membrane. He moved his hand around, but it seemed the entire entrance to the corridor was barred by this invisible obstruction.

"I can't get in," he said. "Something's blocking the way."

Max frowned, but took a breath and relaxed. At the same time, both Ragal and Casper sighed, and opened their eyes. And in that second of time, the corridor simply vanished.

"What happened?" Charlie asked.

Max scratched his head, and gave a little shrug. "I'm not sure."

"What were you trying to do?" Ricky asked.

Again, Max gave a little shrug. "I'm not sure." He looked over at Charlie. "When you touched it, did you sense anything?"

Charlie considered that. "Well, it gave, like it was made of rubber."

"Not a solid wall, then?"


Max brightened at that. "That's a good sign. It resisted you, but it didn't block you completely. You just didn't have the power to overcome that resistance."

Kippy looked from Charlie to Max. "What would have happened if it hadn't resisted him?"

"Well ---" Max smiled then. "I think he might have teleported across the room."

"What?" Charlie simply stared at the elf. "I can't teleport!"

"You would have if you could see the moment," Max returned. "You don't have the talent to create the moment on your own." He winked. "At least, not yet. But if that moment was created for might have done it."

Ricky laughed. "Oh, is that all?"

Adrian nodded. "There was a reason for this experiment?"

Max's smile slipped away. "Yeah. I'm trying to figure out what we're gonna do when we find the others."

Kippy shook his head. "We just land and rescue them, don't we?"

"I don't think so." Max looked grave now. "I've been talking to Murcha about the damage to Pacha's ship. Murcha got readings from the data stream Illia was sendin' - enough to give him an idea what happened, we think."

"Not good, I'm feeling," Ricky stated quietly.

"No." Max sighed. "Them ships is built tough, you guys. The Kifta use metals we don't have back on Earth yet. They're strong. And a sphere is by nature one of the strongest hollow objects you can have.:" Max looked pained now. "Well, Murcha was doing the math, using the acceleration and deformation numbers he got before the data stream died, and he thinks that as much as fifty million tons of ice fell on the ship."

Charlie was stunned, and simply sat in silence, along with the others.

"Million --" Kippy whispered.

"--tons," Adrian finished, shaking his head.

Max nodded. "Pacha is holding that mass back from crushing the final space inside the wreck completely." He winced. "If this was all happening in real time...they'd be dead now."

"You remember how tired you got, keeping your presence open to them, for just over a minute?" Ragal asked. "Even with Kippy and Adrian boosting your power?"

Charlie nodded.

Ragal shook his head. "Pacha is an immensely gifted Ka. Very powerful. But his ability to hold back this sort of mass for any extended length of not possible."

"How much time has passed since it happened?" Charlie asked. "I mean, for them. Do we even know?"

"I estimate a half hour," Max said. "Maybe a little longer."

Charlie's heart quailed at that. "Could he last that long?"

Max considered that. "He's not keeping that entire mass at bay. Just what is trying to compress the space they're in. It still has to be a considerable load." He nodded. "But I'd say I could do it, and Pacha is as strong in the things he can do as I am in the things I can do. He may even be stronger."

"But time is running out for them," Ragal continued.

Max nodded. "Yeah. And there's the rub. Once we locate this planet, we're gonna have to come out of the Cooee to land there. And when we do that, the clock starts running again for them, with no more interruptions."

Kippy licked his lips. "Can't you do something once we get there? I mean, magical?"

Max forced a weak smile. "Yeah. Say we found them and landed right away. Then I'd only have to move a few million tons of ice to get at them. That would take time. A lot of it."

"How much time?" Charlie had to ask.

"A few hours, probably."

Charlie gasped, seeing now where this was leading. Pacha could not possibly hold back the ice for several more hours. Charlie had not considered that at all. Somehow, in his mind, he had equated finding the others with rescuing them.

It left him grasping at straws. "Well...what if we summoned that help you mentioned earlier? Like 100 tough elves, or something? Once we landed, all of you could clear that ice a lot faster, right?"

Max cocked his head to one side, and then gave it a small shake. "No, Charlie. I don't think that would work."

"We have to do this on our own, remember?" Ricky asked, watching Charlie carefully. "Just the seven of us."

Charlie rubbed at his forehead, seeing no way out. "I don't know why. It seems smarter to get as much help as we can."

"Something would go wrong," Ragal said then. "I think we have already been handed the decision. We either do this ourselves, doesn't get done."

Charlie swallowed hard. "You mean...our friends will die."

Ragal looked terribly sad, but nodded. "Yes."

"Are we being tested?" Kippy asked. "Who is doing this?"

Ragal looked thoughtful. "No. This is not a test, except perhaps in spirit. I think we have actually been guided into doing what will most likely result in a favorable outcome. As to who, or what, is guiding our fates...I don't know. It may not even be an intelligent entity as we think of it. It may be a simple, primal force in the universe, one that thirsts for positive outcomes. So much of what happens in the universe seems negative, Charlie. We as intelligent species pay more attention to the bad things that happen than we do the good ones, because it is the nature of observant beings to focus more on those circumstances that may cause them trouble than those that will not."

Adrian smiled. "News travels fast. Bad news travels the fastest."

Ragal returned the smile. "Exactly." His gaze returned to Charlie. "I believe what happened to Pacha and the others was an accident, a pure whim of fate. But I believe our response has been guided in some fashion, so as to produce the most positive outcome possible. The rescue of our friends."

Charlie nodded. "It just seems there's no way to do it."

"We have to find the way," Max said. "There must be a solution."

Kippy nodded. "That's why you were working on the corridor thing. You're trying to figure out how to do something, aren't you?"

Charlie realized that his boyfriend was right. "I see. A combination of powers, somehow. Something each one of us adds to the mix."

"Then I don't have any idea what my part is in all this," Ricky put in. "I don't have any powers that I know about."

"You said Charlie needed you, even before we knew what happened," Adrian countered. "You knew something had happened, just as soon as I did. And you knew that Charlie needed you."

Ricky considered that, and nodded. "I did feel that way."

"Then you are right where you belong," Ragal told him. "All of us - all seven of us - are right where we belong."

"But we don't know what to do." Charlie reminded.

The room fell into silence as each of them considered the magnitude of the problem. Pacha's ship was buried under unimaginable quantities of ice. To simply dig them out would be the most direct method. But that would take time, and if they took too much time, Pacha's strength would fail, and the small hollow he and his friends were currently surviving inside would be crushed.

All of them would perish in an instant. Charlie's heart quailed at the idea of losing his friends. And in such a violent, horrible manner!

He closed his eyes, unwilling to even imagine such an end to their mission. It seemed an impossible task. The clock would work against them no matter what they did --

The clock.

"Can't you slow time for them, or even stop it, as soon as we landed?" Charlie asked, without opening his eyes.

He heard Max grunt. "I can do it for us because I know where all of us are. I don't know where they are. Even landing nearby, I would only have a general idea. It might work - and it might not. We can't risk the might not."

Charlie nodded, even as a new idea was coming. He opened his eyes and looked over at Max. "We have to do the rescue from inside the Cooee."

The elf frowned at him, and nodded. "What do you have in mind?"

Charlie managed a small laugh. "Well, I didn't really have anything in mind beyond the idea that going into real time to perform a rescue will probably cause us to fail."

Ricky nodded. "We don't have time to spare on trying a lot of different things." He cocked his head at Max. "That thing you were just doing with Ragal and Casper. With the corridor. Would it work on Charlie?"

Max smiled. "I was kinda thinking along those lines when I came up with the test. I can't teleport to where Pacha and the others are, because it's now a new location. I'd have to be there one time by normal means before I could ever teleport there." He turned his gaze to Charlie. "Charlie can go there in his second presence, but I can't tag along for some reason. A lot of magics are complimentary, and additive, and can work together. But apparently, not this one. It makes me think it's because teleporting and split-presence are on the other side of the coin from each other."

"What does that mean?" Kippy asked.

Max nodded. "It's just an analogy guys. But...suppose you have a giant coin. Big enough for everyone to stand on. All the teleporters are in a group here, and all the locators are in a group there, and all the time manipulators are in another group over there. All these groups contain elves - or anybody - that are good at one kind of magic. Their best magic, let's say."

"Makes sense," Charlie said. "But there's more, I take it?"

"Yeah. No elf does just one magic. Everyone can do lots of magics, but they're usually really good at only one or two" -- he grinned -- "or three or four, of the harder magics. So all these groups kinda rub shoulders with the groups that contain other magics they can also do. The result is that there is just one big crowd that covers the whole coin, with areas of people that all kinda mix because so many people can do several of the bigger magics. You see?"

"And the other side of the coin?" Adrian asked. "What does that mean?"

"Uncommon magics," Max said, nodding his head at Charlie. "On the other side of the coin, there is a much smaller crowd of people, just a few, and they do magics that few others can do. These groups are usually separate, not close to each other, because very few people can perform more than one uncommon magic. And because the coin is between them and the people on the other side, these uncommon magics are not complimentary. I can teleport, among other things, and Charlie can send his other self places. But our magics are on opposite sides of the coin, and can't work together."

Charlie nodded. "Oh. That's what you meant before, when you said you couldn't ride along with me."

"Right. All I need to do is get to the place where Pacha and the others are one time to be able to get the location and teleport them out of there. I don't have to go there physically. If I could do split-presence, I could send my other self there and get the location. But I can't split my presence like Charlie can, and our magics won't work together, so I can't tag along with him."

Adrian looked excited. "So you are hoping that Ragal's ability to translate concepts, and Casper's ability to generate imagery in people's minds, can somehow find a common ground where your teleportation and Charlie's split-presence can work together!"

Max sighed, and looked pleased. "I love you guys. You make everything so easy for me!"

Everyone laughed, and Ricky put an arm around his boyfriend and squeezed him. "That's my smart guy!"

Adrian blushed, but looked happy himself. "But will it work?"

Max held up his hands. "That's what we have to figure out. Just because Ragal can sense my moment before teleportation and translate it into a concept that Casper can project, doesn't mean it will work with Charlie's moment when his presence splits. I wanted to try it on me first, because if it failed there, it was probably no use to try it with Charlie."

"But it worked!" Casper said, delightedly. "It worked very well!"

"It did," Ragal agreed. "But as we saw, Charlie was unable to enter the corridor that was Max's teleportation moment. The resistance was still there to the two concepts working together."

Charlie shook his head. "Yeah. But I didn't sense that I was being kept out. I just felt like I didn't have the power to push through whatever was stopping me."

"You're still new at this," Max said. "It will take time to build your power. Time we don't have. Even if we hung out here in the Cooee for a relative year, it would probably not be enough." He smiled at Kippy. "Fortunately, there may be an answer. Kip and Adrian seem able to boost your power. Their skwish is very strong, and they both seem to be good at channeling that energy to you."

"Because we care about him," Kip said, leaning up against Charlie. "I've already learned that the power of skwish is boosted a lot when you're using it for something dear to your heart."

Max smiled at that. "Well put."

Charlie nodded, understanding now. "I get you. You want me to be able to go back to Pacha's ship, and take you along with me."

"That would work," Max agreed. "Or if the path was just open, so that I could follow on my own. If I can get my presence there, I can get them out."

"Then we need to work on that," Charlie said. He frowned then. "The only thing is, I can't seem to direct this thing well. So far, I've visited Mike and the others without intending to do it. I just don't know that I can go to them at will."

"That's something I can help you with," Max returned. "If you was in an elf school growing up, you would have been taught the concentration needed to direct your talents. You'd be good at it by now. But I can teach you that."

"Then we should get started," Ragal suggested.

Charlie nodded, and looked at the overhead. "Murcha? Anything yet?"

"Not yet, Charlie. But I am coming into a search area that seems thicker in gas and dust. This would seem to be a more appropriate location to find a brown dwarf, so I have hopes that we will see results sooner than later."

"Okay. Keep us in the loop."

Charlie took a deep breath, let it sigh outward, and smiled at Max. "I'm ready, whenever you are."

Charlie sat on the roost outside the big barn, and stared around at the countryside. It could have been any farm in his own state, or one nearby. The rolling landscape was utterly familiar, pleasant and green, and lined with trees to either side. He cast a quick look to his rear. The structure at his back was a deep, weathered red, with white doors and white trim around the windows, also utterly familiar. Just like home!

Far off, he could hear the pleasant, summery sound of an engine; a tractor, perhaps, making its way back and forth across the landscape. There was a breeze, just a slight one, that ruffled Charlie's feathers, and somehow instilled within him a wish to take wing. Born on the breeze was a tantalizing array of aromas and scents, few of which he recognized, but so many of which seemed to appeal to something within him. Some were sweet, some bitter; others simply alluring for reasons he could only guess at.

His vision seemed unusually sharp - amazingly so, in fact - and there were small motions everywhere. A gray squirrel came down the bole of a tree far off at the edge of the woods, looked about nervously, and scampered across to another tree. Something inside Charlie responded...he was hungry! Farther on, the brush at the edge of the woods parted, and a fisher looked out. Charlie shuddered, somehow recognizing the animal as a predator, one he did not wish to mix with first hand. Not all movement was potential food.

Beside him, there was a rustling sound, and then Kippy's voice came to mind." Oh, Charlie! You're so beautiful!"

Charlie managed to turn his head at an odd angle, and gazed down at his colorful breast. It was blue and gray, with appealing black streaks edging the feathers. "I'm a Goshawk, I think."

He turned his head and tried to smile at his boyfriend, but found that the muscles normally used for such an action failed to respond. "You look like a Merlin." He leaned out a little and looked beyond Kippy at Adrian. "I think you're a Kestrel. You're both hot!"

Both of the birds tittered a bit, and Kippy gently flexed his wings. "This feels so strange!"

Another face leaned out further down the line, and a dark eye examined Charlie critically. "Not bad!" Ricky said. The head turned and the eye looked downward. "What am I?"

Charlie laughed, and was startled when a strange squeak issued forth form his beak instead. "You're a Peregrine Falcon. It suits you, somehow."

There was movement on Charlie's other side, and he turned his head that way. The bird there was larger than any of them, and covered in plumage of gold and gray and black. It was utterly striking, and Charlie wanted to smile again, but found that he could only clack his beak instead. "You look awesome, Max. Golden Eagle, right?"

"I guess," the elf said. "Don't have any birds like this up north. Guess the magic selected the types." A black eye surveyed Charlie calmly. "How do you feel?"

"Weird. And wonderful, all at the same time."

Max uttered a piercing cry. "Oops! Gotta watch that laughing stuff in this form."

"What this all about?" Kippy's voice asked.

"It's about dealing with unfamiliar feelings," Max told them. "And unfamiliar ways of using your mind. Anyone want to fly?"

"Oh, hell, I do!" Ricky called.

"I think we all do," Adrian added. "I always wanted to fly."

"Well, don't do it just yet," Max countered. "You guys don't know how!"

Kippy extended his wings a bit. "Don't you just kind of jump, and flap, and"

"Right." Max's thoughts sounded merry. "You don't know how. Much as humans have wanted to fly since the dawn of time, the only way they know how is by magic. Or, uh, with those amazing machines you guys build to fly around in."

Charlie wanted to smile at that, but couldn't. "Don't tell me you're going to teach us how to fly? Isn't that a little obvious?"

The great eagle reared back a bit. "It's another analogy, Charlie. Learning to do something that is totally unfamiliar to your mind and body is how elves learn to deal with magic. It might strike you as perfectly normal for elves to be able to do magic, but when we're born, our talents are mostly latent. What is operative actually has to be suppressed until a child is old enough to understand the import of what they're doing. Can you imagine a baby born that's instantly ready to toss gravity around, or change time, or teleport around the house? Mommies and daddies would go nuts pretty darn quickly!"

Charlie did laugh at that, and then again at the strange call that issued from his throat. "Okay, I get it. So by learning to fly, we'll be opening up some new area of our minds?"

"Sure. Have you ever flown before?"


"And it's something your human body can't do. Something it's not designed to do. So you are going to both learn a new action it was previously impossible for you to do, and learn to operate inside a new body that has capabilities you've never had before. All of this will help you with your magic."

Charlie bobbed his head up and down. "Okay. What's first?"

Max's head bobbed, too. "Firstly, you need to understand how you can fly in this form. It starts with your wings. They're thicker in the front than in the back. And they're more curved across the top than underneath. The air moves faster over the longer upper surface than it does the shorter surface below. That creates lower air pressure above than below. So you get lift, which raises the wing, and because the wing is attached to the bird, the whole shebang takes off."

"I think I knew this much," Charlie decided. "It's basic physics."

"Britannica Brain!" Ricky called, a definite humorous squawk to his voice.

"You use your legs to propel yourself into motion," Max continued. "To launch yourself. And then you flap your wings to propel yourself and increase your speed and height."

"That sounds simple enough," Kippy decided.

Max belted out anther piercing cry. "Dang! I gotta watch that." He leaned forward to gaze past Charlie at Kip. "You wanna try first?"

"Sure," Kippy said confidently. "I just jump off this rail we're sitting on, and flap my wings, and go."

"Uh huh. Okay, whenever you're ready."

"Be careful, Kip," Charlie cautioned, feeling that Max was too ready to let one of them try to fly.

Kippy spread his wings, gave them a perfunctory flap, and then launched himself off the roost. He immediately flapped his wings, glided a few feet...and then let out a startled squawk as he settled heavily to the ground.


"You okay, Kip?" Charlie called.

"He can't be hurt," Max said immediately. "Well...much. Just enough to learn him not to do rash things. Kip?"

"Um...yes? Max, sir?"

Charlie wanted to laugh at the tone of his boyfriend's thoughts, but felt that another raucous call would not be indicative of the support he should be showing for his boyfriend.

"Do you know why that didn't work?" Max asked patiently.

"No. I have no idea at all."

Max made a subtle move of one foot, and Kippy lifted off the ground, floated upwards, and landed softly back on his roost.

"That happened because you were trying to fly in a bird's body, but with using your human brain. Your brain does not know how to motivate that body. Not yet, anyway. For instance...when you flapped your wings?"

Everyone was attentive now, leaned forward or backwards to gaze at Max.

"Yeah?" Kippy responded. "I moved them up and down. Was it not fast enough?"

"That's part of it," Max agreed. "A bird has a higher body temperature than a human, to allow its muscles to work better, and a higher respiratory rate, to help feed oxygen to those muscles. A bird's wings are a lot lighter in relation to its body than your arms are in relation to yours. You have to move your wings much faster than you have ever moved your arms."

"I don't know if I can."

"You can. The limitations are only in your mind. Your body and brain - the one you are wearing now - are up to the task. Another thing."

Kippy bobbed his head. "Yes?"

The golden eagle waved one wing tip. "You flapped your wings up and down, more or less. That won't work. You are motivating those wings as if you were flapping your own arms."

"I feel like I'm flapping my own arms," Kippy responded.

"But you're not. When a bird flaps his wings to fly, there is a very subtle twist to the motion that allows the wing to faintly cup the air, giving more thrust. Birds also can actually adjust some of their feathers for better aerodynamic properties, and they use their tail feathers as a kinda rudder to help with direction. If you just move the wings up and down, you'll get some lift, but no real thrust."

Kippy made a soft gasp in this thoughts. "I can't do all that!"

"Yes, you can. That body is built to do those things, and the brain inside it instinctively knows what to do. It's up to you to let down the barriers that restrict you to moving a human body only, and allow your thoughts to fill every niche of the brain you have there, and to seek out its secrets. It's the only way you will ever fly."

"This helps with magic?" Ricky asked. "How?"

"Yes," Max replied. "Using magic is about learning new ways to use your mind. In learning the ways of a new body, your mind makes the same sort of leaps it will need to do in order to grasp and use the new thought forms that come with mastering magic."

"I see," Charlie said. "We're not just learning to fly here. We're learning a new way to think."

"That's about it." Max's dark eagle eye somehow showed approval. "What all of you need to do now is explore the bodies you find yourselves in. First feel them out. Then try moving stuff that has no corresponding part on your own body. You have to fill every niche of that bird head, in order to use its body."

Charlie bobbed his head, and settled back on the roost and closed his eyes, and let his mind go exploring. The first thing he discovered was how sensitive his skin seemed to be. The breeze that played about them increased and decreased, and subtly changed direction as the air moved. Charlie found he could feel those tiny changes in direction and pressure.

His focus on his skin led to a heightened awareness of the feathers that protruded from it, and that he had muscles that allowed him to actually move some of these feathers. A little experimentation led him to decide that a certain sensation he felt to his rear were his tail feathers moving, and that he could take the direction and speed of the air moving around him from his sensitive skin and adjust the feathers a bit to cause his body to feel a slightly higher force on one side of the tail than the other. Certainly this would be used to help steer!

Charlie extended his wings and tried moving them up and down. The ease with which they did so was not lost on him. There was none of the feel of mass that his human arms had. The wings seemed amazingly light, and he was sure now that he could move them faster than he had ever moved his own arms. He moved the wings again, this time trying to rotate them, and found that the joint moved enough like his own shoulder muscles that he could get the hang of it. As a human, if he extended his arms straight out from his body, he could both move them up and down and front to back, and also rotate them an appreciable part of a circle. The bird joint didn't rotate as much, but he found a comfortable motion that employed both movements and tugged him forward on the roost, indicating thrust. So that was how it was done!

He next flexed his legs, understanding that he needed to use them to launch himself. He could easily move his body up and down, and saw that they could give him an appreciable push into motion. Birds didn't run to get going. They seemed to sort of hop into flight. That meant that the wings had to come down at the same time as the legs pushed off. To Charlie's scientific mind, that approach seemed likely to generate the most initial thrust.

Hmm. So the wings came down, and turned slightly so that they also came back. It wasn't too different from the way helicopter blades could change pitch to grab at the air to obtain lateral thrust. He moved his wings slowly, giving them both an up and down movement and also canting them forward a bit so that on each downward stroke they also moved slightly backwards. He could feel the pressure against his legs, drawing him forward. It felt like an odd motion to his human way of moving arms, but the longer he did it, the better the feel of it imprinted in his mind.

"Charlie?" Max's voice sounded pleased. "How are you doing?"

"I don't know." Charlie let his wings come to a stop. "I feel a different way of moving, maybe. I've never felt anything like it before." He laughed, and was again startled by the sharp cry that issued from his body. "I guess I can't expect to learn to fly in a just a few minutes."

"We've been here all day, Charlie."

"What?" Charlie turned his head to look at the eagle.

"I said, 'we've been here all day.' And then some, actually."

"Really? It felt like a few minutes!"

"You are there inside your mind, Charlie. There is always a certain timelessness inside one's own thoughts." The eagle gave a soft cry. "I've been watching you, and listening. Are you ready to try your wings?"

Charlie felt a flutter of fear...and then just as quickly, a sense of calm. He had gotten used to the new movements, hadn't he? And Max said they couldn't really be hurt here. So it wasn't like he could fall too hardly if he messed up.

"I'll give it a whirl, sure."

The great eagle bobbed its head. "Take your time. Get your feel. Go when you're ready."

Charlie took a deep breath. His tiny heart felt like it was racing inside his body, and nervous energy pervaded every fiber of his being. But he extended his wings, gave them a few test flaps, tested the rearward angle, and then brought them back to his side. Take off must be one, fluid movement. He thought back to the countless times he had seen birds in his yard, and saw again the way their entire bodies surged into motion at take off.

As one, Charlie leaned forward, gave a fierce spasm of energy to his legs, and unfurled his wings and beat them down and back. He launched into the air, remembered to cycle his wings, and then beat them as fast as he was able, up, down, and slightly rotated back. Air coursed over his body, feeding him the direction and speed of the wind, and he leaned slightly into it to counter the lateral thrust, beat his wings harder, and then remembered to angle his tail feathers slightly to add lift.

For a moment he swayed precariously in the air, on far from a smooth and graceful trajectory; and then the motions he was performing, the thoughts he was thinking, meshed, and he grabbed air and climbed into the sky. The speed of his retreat from the ground took his breath away. A blue sky streaked with afternoon sun rose before him, while the browns and greens of the earth dropped away. Charlie found that he could turn by adding an extra beat to one wing over the other, and by shifting that strange feeling to his rear that signaled his tail feathers.

And then, quite suddenly, he was above the world, and the barn and the farm stretched out below. He wheeled, feeling every small nuance of the air as it moved around him, as it caressed him, and talked to him, and bore him along. Charlie looked down, and smiled inside, even if he could not smile without. He parted his beak, and gave a triumphant screech into the golden afternoon air.

He was flying!

He circled the others, his confidence growing, the body of the bird sending him information he scarcely knew what to do with, but somehow which he processed well enough to stay airborne. Two, three circles about the barn, and then he angled towards the ground, opened his wings a bit for drag, and came in for a perfect landing back on the fence rail roost.

Almost. At the last second he realized he was going to overshoot his mark and tried to correct. His talons scraped across the railing and he landed hard on the ground, with enough force to make his eyes bounce up and down. But it only took a second to realize that he was not hurt, and he forced his legs under himself and turned to look up at the others.

"Watch that last step! It's a doozy!"

He heard a couple of screeing hoots of laughter, and would have smiled if he could. Instead, he gazed up at the railing, sprang, flapped his wings a couple of times, and landed again between Kippy and Max.

"Oh, Charlie!" Kippy's voice came to him. "You were wonderful!"

"Not bad," Max said, bobbing his head in agreement. "I've seen far worse first attempts, believe me." But he extended a wing and brushed the tip fondly along Charlie's side. "And what did you learn...besides the fact that landings take practice?"

Charlie considered that. "I can't believe how different it felt to be a bird, even if just for a minute. The experience was so different from being...well, being me." Charlie bobbed his head. "I think I learned that there's more than one way to think about even simple things like moving around." The thought was striking, actually. "And that, maybe, there's more than one way to thinking about everything."

The Golden Eagle somehow looked satisfied. "I think you're on your way, Charlie."

"Can I try now?" Ricky asked.

Max gave Charlie a last approving look, and then repositioned himself on the fence rail. "Whenever you're ready."

Ricky came off the fence rail all in one swift movement, dived straight towards the ground, and then pulled up at the last second and beat his wings furiously, bulleting upwards into the sky. He circled the field several times, slowed, and then drifted back down to land softly on the rail next to Adrian.

Wow!" Adrian called, and then screed loudly. "That was awesome!"

"That was impressive," Kippy agreed.

Charlie was also enthused. "You made me look like a lead weight!"

Ricky looked delighted at the praise, but then they heard a screeing laugh. "It may have looked good, but I nearly nosedived right into the dirt. That was pure screw up, believe me! And if I hadn't seen the trouble Charlie had with landing, I might have come down with a splat at the end!"

"You learned from watching Charlie," Max said. "That's great, Rick."

Kippy and Adrian each took a turn next, and were noticeably more cautious than Ricky had been. But each boy managed to get aloft, fly several circles, and then land back on the railing again without much of a problem.

"I'm impressed with the way you guys learn from each other," Max told them. "That's a gift right there. You guys share a talent for understanding each other. That is going to be important someday."

The practiced flying about some more, until they had it down fairly well, and then Max took them back to reality so that they could eat dinner.

Three relative days later, they were still at it. They had spent the morning inside their minds with Max, learning more ways to consider the all that was everything. That's the way that Charlie had come to consider it: the all. They had explored being other creatures, had explored each other's minds, and felt the moments that inspired each others hidden talents. Charlie felt as if the inside of his head had somehow gotten larger in the process, and that he had filled some of those new spaces with exciting and wonderful things.

Slowly at first, and then with more confidence later, Charlie had learned to initiate his talent at will. It was still not very strong yet, and the most he had done was to split his presence and send his other self briefly into other parts of the ship. Max did not want him to exhaust himself, because the moment they felt they had a workable path to a rescue, they needed to be ready to move. Once they had understood that they needed to make a rescue from within the Cooee, actually finding Antariluma and the wrecked ship had become secondary. They could hopefully extract their friends and worry about locating the ship later. Each brief return to normal space and time to take a scan added more seconds to Pacha's battle with the forces trying to crush their ship. To go even one second past the end of the Kift's stamina would be to fail in their mission to rescue their friends. So Murcha had paused his search for the time being, in the hope that Charlie and the others would find a way to perform the rescue with no more time passing for Pacha.

The problem so far had been that Ragal did not see the moment of initiation of Charlie's ability in a manner that could be handed to Casper and made visible. Charlie had yet to be able to pause his ability the way Max did with a teleport, and so Ragal only had a brief glimpse of the initiating moment before Charlie's other self was off somewhere within the ship. Translating that moment into a visual analog was key to Max possibly following Charlie along the path to Mike and Pacha and the others.

Max had tried to describe what it was he did to initiate a teleport and then not go through with it, thus pausing the moment of inspiration for Ragal to view; but Charlie had simply not been able to do it. It was something he would learn later, he figured, but so far, it was just beyond the capabilities of a rank newbie.

It was Ricky who came up with the answer. "What about micro time, Max?"

The elf was looking a little tired by then, and blinked at the boy a moment before suddenly smiling. "That's a good idea, but I already thought of that."

Ricky frowned. "We can't put Charlie in a micro time moment like we did with Erma and Neelie? We slowed them down so that they could search for years for a companion for Oumuamua. If we slow Charlie down like that, and let him initiate his ability, won't that give Ragal more time to observe it?"

"It would if Ragal could observe it. But micro time is isolated from the here and now, and Ragal would be unable to cross the boundary to get the sense of Charlie's ability."

Ragal suddenly smiled. "Are you sure of that?"

Max turned towards the lanky alien, and nodded. "Yeah. No elf has ever been able to --" He stopped suddenly, and looked surprised. "But you ain't an elf."

"I am also somewhat acquainted with the rules of time, from my journey to this one through Kippy's ring. I think we should try this idea of Rick's, before we discard it as unusable."

Max nodded. "You're right. That was a preconception on my part. I just didn't think it through."

Kippy leaned over and patted the elf on his shoulder. "Your humanity is showing, Max."

The elder elf laughed, and Charlie could see the delight in his eyes. "Don't remind me, huh? Okay. We'll try this. Charlie, you wanna come sit and be comfortable?"

Charlie returned to the sofa and sat beside Kippy, who immediately took his hand and squeezed it.

"No touchy stuff, Kip," Max said, smiling tolerantly. "Give him a kiss, and then back off."

Kippy made a slightly rude noise, but leaned over to Charlie and puckered up, and Charlie accepted the kiss, along with the powerful load of emotions that came with it. It gave him a lift, and he was smiling as Kippy leaned back, and then scooted over a few feet away.

"You do that so well, Kip."

Adrian grinned, and Ricky gave him a look. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing. I can...I can just feel that kind of stuff in my skwish now. It's very strong."

Ricky grinned, leaned forward and puckered up. "I'll show you strong!" They kissed, and Kippy suddenly beamed, and Max sighed and rolled his eyes. "Geez, fellas, can we?"

The two boys parted, each grinning, and Charlie nodded at Max. "We're all fortified now, Max. So what do I do?"

"Just sit there. In a moment everything around you will sort of look rosy red. As soon as you see that, try to split your presence and go someplace in the ship."

"Okay. Whenever you're ready."

Max nodded, and lifted a hand. Everyone around Charlie suddenly faded, and the world turned red. He immediately closed his eyes, and allowed his other self to step forward, to leave his body, and walk around the control center. He was stunned then to suddenly be able to see everyone again, and himself sitting on the sofa, encased in a slightly rose-colored sheen that only allowed his basic features to show through.

Ragal was standing nearby, his eyes closed. "Wonderful! The progression has slowed to clarity! I've got it, I think. Casper? Are you ready?"

"Yes." The little alien also closed his eyes. "I see...really? Is it that simple?"

"It would appear to be so," Ragal returned. "Can you create the imagery?"

Casper nodded, and all the others leaned forward as one to watch.

A rounded shape appeared nearby, taller even than Ragal. Actually, it was half of an ellipse, with rounded sides curving upwards to meet above. The interior of the shape lit, took on colors of brown and green, and slowly resolved into an image of a forest path, that meandered away from them and disappeared among the underbrush. It was if they were standing within the mouth of a small cave and looking out into a forested land, with the very path that had brought them to the cave visible at their feet. Except Charlie knew instinctively that the reverse was true; the path went away from the starting point, and to step onto it would take one...where?"

Charlie looked down, and was not that surprised to imagine the path under his own feet. It was not really there at all, only a shadow provided by the power of Casper's illusion, which was strong enough that Charlie evidently could even perceive it here. But it seemed evident where that path led now: to the very spot where Charlie's other self was standing.

A visual analog had been found.

Charlie understood that this was all a matter of perception, and that the forest path had no basis in reality other than inside their minds. But moving about and treating the analog as a real place in time was apparently necessary in order for their own minds to master the difficult tasks of translating an experience occurring in one mind into something that another mind could grasp and work with. They were crossing borders now that had never been crossed by elf-kind before now. It was new territory, and what would happen next made Charlie tingle with anticipation.

"Now for the test," Max said, standing up and approaching the rounded doorway. He arrived before the forest path, took a deep breath, and tried to step onto it.

For a second Charlie could see the resistance, that same rubbery thing that had stopped him from entering the corridor analog to Max's teleport. But Max was much more powerful than Charlie. The elf leaned into it a bit...and he moved forward, onto the path.

What happened next occurred so quickly that Charlie almost missed it. As Max fully stepped into the path, he suddenly reappeared, slightly transparent, next to Charlie's other self.

"It worked!" the new Max breathed, staring at Charlie's other self. "You see me?"


"Let's move about a little, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, and took a few steps. Max moved right along with him.

"You seem to be going where I'm going!"

The other Max grinned, and raised a hand.

Just as suddenly, Charlie was seated on the sofa again, the red sheen gone, the world returned to normal. Max - the real one - was standing before the forest path analog, as if he had never tried to enter it., Everyone else was watching Max, and seemed surprised when the real Charlie suddenly reappeared on the sofa.

"What happened?" Ricky asked.

"It worked!" Ragal said, looking delighted. "I feel it worked!"

"It did," Max agreed. "For a moment, I was along with Charlie's other self."

"Yay!" Casper cheered then. "Can I stop the illusion?"

Max jumped to his feet. "Can you hold it just a second, Casper?"

"Yes. I'm not even tired yet."

Max nodded. "Kip - quickly. See if you can step onto that path."

Kippy bounded to his feet, approached the forest path, and tried to step into it. His leg rebounded immediately, and try as he might, he could not enter.

"Now you, Adrian, though I suspect you'll have the same results."

Adrian also got up and made the attempt, and was also rebuffed at the invisible threshold of the forest path.

"Now you, Rick!'

Ricky nodded, got quickly to his feet, and tried to stick his foot into the garden path. Only this time, after a brief resistance, Ricky's leg suddenly moved forward, and he straddled the threshold, one foot on the deck of the ship, one on the forest path.

Charlie suddenly felt a strange, crawling sensation inside his head. It wasn't painful, or even disturbing. Just so different from anything he had ever experienced before that he immediately brought a hand to his forehead. "Whoa!"

"Come back, Rick!" Max called, waving anxiously.

Ricky backed away from the forest path, and the strange crawling sensation in Charlie's head went away.

Max nodded, and turned to Casper. "You can let it go now, Casper. Thank you."

The small alien sighed, opened his eyes, and the forest path disappeared from view.

Max turned to Charlie. "You okay?"

"Yeah. It was just this weird feeling, for a moment."

"When Ricky stepped onto the path?"

"Uh huh."

Ricky looked concerned now. "Did I step on something, Charlie?"

Max laughed. "You're more right than you know. I've been wondering what your part is in this, Rick. I can sense you growing, but I have no idea what it is that's coming to life inside of you. But now I suspect it's something we're gonna need to finish this. You can obviously go with Charlie, just like I can."

Ricky's eyes got large. "But am I supposed to?"

"That, I don't know. But I place a lot of stock in knowing that you can."

"You should at least be ready to go along," Ragal said, smiling. "We would seem to be ready to try a rescue. Charlie will send his second self back to Pacha and the others. Max will go along, and the moment he is there, he will have the location of the place, and can teleport our friends to safety."

"And what do I do?" Ricky asked. "Because I got no idea, myself."

Ragal nodded. "I suggest that you simply stand at the entrance to the forest path, and be ready to step in if you are needed. You're a wild card in all this, I suspect." The lanky alien smiled. "To employ another analogy."

"I agree," Max said. "I think we won't know what you're supposed to do, if anything, until you're needed to do it."

"Great," Rick said, looking unhappy. "I can't even practice!"

"So we're ready?" Charlie asked, a feeling of excitement coming over him. At last!

"No," Max said, firmly. "We're in no-time. We can afford to eat, relax a little, and get a good night's sleep. We've been on the go for days of relative time now. Everyone needs to be as strong as they can for what we need to do."

Kippy scooted closer to Charlie again, and leaned up against him. "Want some R & R?" He smiled, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's what the curtains on the beds are for."

Charlie's face warmed slightly, because he knew everyone could hear Kip despite the whisper, and they were all pretending not to watch now, while also waiting for an answer.

What the hell? If you can't step out a little among your best friends...


Ricky brought his hands together in a clap, and then apparently decided it was too much, and brought his hands up and pretended to cough into them. Adrian rolled his eyes, but smiled as he scooted closer to his own boyfriend. "Wanna?"

Ricky's eyes traveled about the circle of people looking everywhere but back at him, and then grinned. "Yup."

Max sighed. "I could use a nap, myself."

"Me, too," Casper said, smiling at no one in particular.

Ragal sighed. "I'm too keyed up to sleep now. I'll wait a bit." He stared up at the overhead. "Murcha? Feel like a game of chess?"

"I am not familiar with the game, Ragal."

The lanky alien laughed. "I could teach you. Only take a second, I'm certain. matter. Just talk, then?"

"It would be my pleasure."

Ragal nodded, and his eyes dropped back to take in his friends. "See you all at breakfast?"

They had all slept, and eaten, and were ready to make the attempt to rescue Pacha and the others. They returned to the sofa in the control center and made themselves comfortable. Kippy and Adrian took places on either side of Charlie, feeling that the ability to touch him would add emphasis to the power support they intended to give to him. Ragal, Casper, and Max sat in a line, also feeling that touching would add strength to their missions. Ricky, after giving Adrian one more kiss, was the only one standing, ready to position himself near the forest path analog when it appeared.

"This is gonna be very straightforward, fellas," Max said, looking around at his friends. "Charlie, you let your other self out and send him to Pacha's ship. The moment you do, Ragal, you pass that moment to Casper, who will open the forest path. I'll be ready to step into it to go with Charlie. Rick? You just wait at the entrance. If we call for you, come as quickly as you can. But also - and this is important - if you feel for some reason that you are supposed to go at any given moment, you go. You need to trust your instincts here, okay?"

Ricky took a breath and nodded.

Max turned to Charlie. "Whenever you're ready. Good luck."

Charlie nodded, and closed his eyes. The moment was easy to initialize now, and he did so, and felt his other self start out. Charlie was immediately surrounded by darkness, and once again felt as if he were swimming through the black depths of the ocean. A distant pinpoint of light appeared, and he started for it.

Max appeared beside him then, the other Max, slightly transparent looking, that Charlie had seen in their test experiment.

"Can you hear me, Max?"

"Yeah." The elf pointed at the distant point of light ahead. "Is that where we're goin'?"

"Yes. Let's go."

Charlie moved off, and Max stayed right with him. The darkness passed around them like a fluid, but left no impression upon them. The pinpoint of light grew, became a circle, and Charlie's excitement grew. He could feel the twin warmths of Kip and Adrian somehow beside him, feeding him extra energy that gave his movements an ease he had never experienced before now. They had also increased in ability!

The circle of light grew, and soon became a window. They neared it, and Max suddenly slowed.

"Something's wrong, Charlie. The resistance is increasing. I'm almost to the point where I can't move against it."

Charlie turned, and extended his hand. "Grab hold."

Max nodded, and Charlie felt the elf's hand within his own, even though he knew it could not possibly be there. He took a breath, sensed their unity, and formed a desire for them to move as one. Then Charlie started off again, now able to feel a little of the resistance that was holding Max back. At first it seemed moderate, and he was able to handle it. But then, seemingly with each step, the resistance attacking Max's movements grew. Charlie started by leading Max, and then pulling him along as the resistance increased, and then soon was dragging him forcibly.

"We're almost there, Max!"

Charlie could see through the window now, it was so close. Beyond, the four spacesuited figures were huddled together in a tiny confine now, the walls almost upon them. Charlie gasped, realizing that the moment of Pacha's failure was near!

He pulled as hard as he could, and reached the window, and stepped through. "Mike!"

One of the suited figures turned his head, and the Aussie boy's tired eyes gazed out at him. "Charlie! You came back!"

Bobby also turned now, looking haggard beyond his years. The smaller, spacesuited figure of Pacha'Ka, was nestled between the boys, motionless. "Do something, Charlie!" Bobby pleaded. "Pacha is almost done!"

"I brought Max," Charlie said.

Mike shook his head. "I don't see him."

Charlie turned, and realized then that his arm was still pulled back into the darkness. He could feel Max's hand in his, but could not see the elf behind him. "Max! Come through!"

"I can't, Charlie," Max's voice came back, sounding exhausted. "I can't breach the barrier. I can't make it."

No! Charlie turned back to Mike again, shaking his head, now totally at a loss for what to do next. There was something they hadn't done, something they had missed. He could feel the place where the missing piece belonged, but try as he might, he could not put a name to it...

Kontus raised his head, and nodded. "It was a valiant effort, Charlie. Whatever it was you tried to do. I feel the power of it, somehow. I am only sorry it did not work for you. And for us."

Charlie turned, and pulled harder. He heard Max gasp with pain, and knew then that the elf was stuck beyond the window, at a point just before he was actually inside the ship itself. Now Charlie was tiring too, gasping for air, his chest heaving with the effort of holding Max with him. Some force seemed to be hauling the elf back, attempting to pull him from Charlie's grasp.

Charlie closed his eyes. Kip! We're stuck! Adrian! More power!

He felt the boost then, a surge that gave him his breath back. And with his breath, came clarity...and the solution.

Rick! We need you!

Somewhere to their rear, Charlie sensed a reply. He gasped, holding onto Max with every bit of strength he had left. Time seemed to stand still a moment as forces Charlie barely understood played fearsome tug-of-war games with each other...and then he felt something give. At the same moment, the strain on his arm relaxed. There was movement behind him, and then Max and Ricky appeared beside him.

Inside the ship.

"Now, Max!" Charlie yelled, even as the startled faces of Mike and the others registered in his mind.

Max looked exhausted. But he nodded, and closed his eyes ---

Mike, Bobby, Pacha, and Kontus disappeared from before them, and a fraction of a second after that, the space they had occupied imploded, and simply ceased to exist.

The window and the light vanished, and Charlie felt himself propelled backwards. Somehow, he managed to hold onto Max's hand, feeling the elf being pulled away from him, back along the path they had traveled. Someone else was there, right beside him in the darkness, and Charlie knew it had to be Ricky. He reached out with his other hand, touched an arm, followed it downward, and clutched Ricky's hand.

They slowed, and finally stopped.

"This is the equilibrium point," Ricky said then.

Charlie shook his head. "The what?"

He heard his friend chuckle softly in the darkness, and then, magically, could see his face.

"Balance," Ricky said, smiling. "Remember Max's analogy of the two-sided coin? He was more right than he imagined. Your magic and his are not just different. They flow in opposing directions, Charlie. They have different charges. We forced them to meet in the middle. But at either end, they still go their own way."

"So that's why Max was getting dragged backwards? He had come over into my magic, from his?"

"Uh huh. Where they meet, there's turbulence. Both mixing, and opposition. Max was able to enter there. But the further he moved along your side, the greater that opposite flow of magic worked against him. He got weaker instead of stronger. At the last there, he didn't have the strength left to take the final step onto your side."

Charlie shook his head. This was Rick talking? "How do you know all this?"

"I...I learned it. As soon as I came in here, it was like I could see what was happening. I could see the way the magic works. This must be my ability."

Charlie shook his head. "I don't think it's just that. Max couldn't make the last step. And I couldn't pull him through."

"You could have pulled him through, Charlie. But it would have hurt him badly. And because you couldn't hurt Max, you couldn't pull hard enough to get him there." Ricky looked a little awed now. "I could actually see the turbulence between your two magics. The flow pulling him backwards, and your strength pulling him forwards. You were fighting against yourself. I saw that Max needed a push, in addition to a pull. So I just did that, and we were through."

"How did you push him?"

"Um. I don't really know. In my mind I just got behind him and pushed with my hands. But I think it was more complex than that."

Charlie nodded. "I get you. I only know a little bit about what I'm doing, too. I think it's going to take time for us to learn about this stuff."

"Geez," Max said then. "And I thought I was the big magic guy!"

"Are you okay?" Charlie asked.

"I could sleep for a month, but yeah, I'm good. Now I just wanna get out of here."

"Did we do it?" Charlie asked then, squeezing Max's hand. "Did we rescue them?"

"Yeah. We got 'em out. They should be back on Lollipop now."

Charlie closed his eyes, relief flooding throughout his body. Ricky came closer then, pushing the limp form of Max before him, and he and Charlie hugged, while the elf made little sighing noises between them.

"Okay!" Max finally said. "We're happy! Now back up some so I can breathe!"

Charlie laughed, but the bright cheer he was now feeling could not be dampened. "Max, do you have any idea how we just did what we did?"

"Some. I'm gonna need to talk to some people when I get back home. They may wanna come see you guys."

"Us?" Ricky looked amazed. "Why?"

"'Cause both you guys seem to be on the other side of the coin. Both of you are using uncommon magic."

"You know what I did?" Ricky asked, sounding surprised. "Because I sure don't!"

Max blew a small breath out. "It sounds like you're a magical analyst. Someone that can actually see the processes of magic. That's a hell of talent, because the more you can see of how magic works, the more you'll eventually be able to do yourself."

Charlie grinned. "Like a magic mechanic, huh? Why am I not surprised?"

Ricky laughed. "That is kind of like it was. Like I could see how what was happening was put together. It was the only way I knew I had to give Max a push."

"That's another thing," Max said. "Seeing what's wrong is one thing. Fixing is another. You have more going on than just analyzing." He shook his head. "I'm too tired right now to think about all this. I need to talk to some people, and then we'll go over this some more."

Charlie sighed. "I've actually had enough magic for today, I think. Come on, Rick. Let's get this big guy home."

They hefted Max between them, and Charlie allowed his second self to dematerialize. The darkness about them faded, and the control center of Lollipop appeared around them.

Charlie was still seated on the sofa. Kippy immediately squeezed him, and deposited a kiss to his cheek. "We did it!"

Charlie nodded. "Where are they?"

"Murcha opened the dispensary," Adrian said. "They're all in beds by now."

Ricky was standing before Charlie, looking about as happy as a guy could look.

"You saved the day, buddy," Charlie said.

Ricky watched him a moment, and then shook his head. "It was all of us, Charlie. Every single one of us was needed. I just didn't know my part until it hit me squarely in the face. When you called to Kip and Adrian for more energy, I knew it was time for me to go. I was already on my way when you called me. But I didn't even know what I was supposed to do, until I was right there at the end."

"You did it," Charlie pointed out. "That's what matters."

"Yeah, you did," Max added, from his seat farther along the sofa.

Charlie leaned forward and looked at the elf, and was shocked to see how tired he looked. "Maybe you could use a little dispensary time, yourself," he said.

Max smiled. "Nah. A nice, big meal would help, though."

Charlie nodded, but felt a small and unexpected twinge of surprise. Things had changed, somehow. Max had always occupied a pedestal in Charlie's mind, as someone that was all-powerful and wise. Now he could see that the elf was indeed gifted, indeed wise. But he was also a person, not omnipotent, not unable to fail. Without all of them working together just as they had, not even Max could have pulled this thing off.

Charlie got to his feet. "Help me, Kip."

Charlie and his boyfriend went to Max, who smiled up at them. "What now?"

"Bed for you," Charlie said. "You can eat later."


Charlie bent and grasped Max by an arm, and nodded at Kippy to get the other one. Together they hauled him to his feet, and helped him back to his canopy bed, removed his shoes, and put him to bed.

"Thanks, fellas. I guess I owe you one now."

"No," Charlie said, shaking his head. "You don't."

"Thanks, Max," Kippy said, dropping a hand to touch Max's arm. "Thanks for being there once again."

The elf's eyes went from Charlie's to Kip's, and back again. "It's always my pleasure, fellas, to do anything with you guys. I gotta thank you, too. If we had not done this just right... we'd have lost those guys. We'd have lost our friends."

Charlie nodded. "How about I come back and wake you in a few hours for dinner?"

"Works for me," Max said, smiling. He turned onto his side, arranged the pillow more comfortably beneath his head, and sighed.

Charlie took Kippy by his elbow, and they closed the curtains on Max's bed and stepped away from it.

Kippy came into Charlie's arms then, and Charlie held onto him, and nuzzled his face, and they cried together, just a little, for their friends and their ordeal, and for the wonderful fact that they were now safe.

"Geez, what a mess!" Max said, eying the valley below them.

They all wore spacesuits, necessary due to the thick layer of mostly hydrogen gas that served as the atmosphere for Antariluma. It was cold, too, though not the kind of cold one might expect on a planet that circled no sun. Antariluma was still thermally active, and the thick atmosphere tended to retain some of the heat generated by the planet's interior fires.

Above them, a jagged mountain peak glittered in their spotlights, the raw face of the wound in its side plainly visible. There, the leading edge of a glacier had shorn off during the planetquake, dropping unimaginable tons of solid ice into the valley below. The valley where, it so happened, Pacha's ship had been planeted. That valley was now gone. A vast field of massive, jagged chunks of ice, some the size of icebergs back on earth, had filled it to a depth of over nine hundred feet, bringing it level with the mount they stood upon now.

"It is quite untidy, isn't it?" Pacha'Ka agreed. "And an untimely addition to our explorations here, as well."

Charlie smiled at that, and became aware that Mike was smiling at him, too. "Pach is a very practical guy," the Aussie provided, gazing fondly at the smaller, spacesuit-clad figure he held in his arms. "He just sees this all as an inconvenience."

"In the extreme," the Kifta agreed. "We have to get the resources back here now to disinter my vessel from beneath all this ice. Illia must be wondering what has become of us by now."

The disaster had happened so quickly that none of Pacha's crew had been able to secure the artificial intelligence from her place in the ship's main control column. But the repositories the Kifta supplied for the intelligences that ran their vessels were formidable constructions, designed to survive even if the entire vessel was destroyed. In the event of a total catastrophe like this one, the enclosure activated a stasis field, which completely removed the repository from the influence of outside forces. Unfortunately, that same field would prevent Illia from communicating with the outside world. But Pacha seemed certain that Illia had survived the disaster, and now was intent on retrieving her from the wreck.

"I will assist in any way I can," Murcha said then. "We must rescue her. I also feel she has survived within her womb."

"We'll get her," Charlie reassured.

Ricky gazed up at the shattered peak, and shook his head inside his helmet. "Wonder what set that off?"

"Gravitational stresses, I would imagine," Pacha answered. "Antariluma is in the process of being captured by the brown dwarf, and her bulk is shifting constantly under the new gravitational strains."

Charlie turned and looked the other way, and shook his head again at what he saw there. A city, but one that stretched away to every horizon save the mountainous one at their backs. And a sealed city, too, designed to protect its inhabitants from the atmosphere and low temperatures outside. The city of Taraqua covered over half the planet's surface, a monumental feat of engineering in any culture.

The story of this world, they had learned from Pacha and Mike during their recovery period. When the Juacarvo had fled whatever peril they had fled in the next arm of the galaxy over, they had been far too numerous for their relatively small fleet of vessels to handle. So they had converted their planet into a worldship for travel, and simply brought it with them across the vast gulf that separated the two spiral arms.

While possessing a drive that allowed their ships to enter the Cooee and travel to the stars, the planet itself had no such capability. But the Juacarvo did have some ability with time, and had slowed the passage of it enough about Antariluma for their planet to cross the nearly 10,000 light year gulf between spiral arms in a mere thousand years of subjective time. Far more time had passed within the real time of the galaxy, so that by the time Antariluma arrived within the Orion arm forty thousand years past, the peril they had fled from had ceased to exist.

By that point the population was restless, and as they neared the stars of their new home, their ships began to explore, looking for new worlds to call their own. Even as Antariluma was just arriving in this arm of the galaxy, Juacarvo colonies were springing up on worlds in a small cluster of welcoming suns, and more and more of the population was leaving the original home planet. Before too long, there were more Juacarvo in the colonies than on the home world, and the influence of the original government waned.

And soon, the world was simply abandoned, as the last of the population moved to the colonies. Antariluma would forever be a world without a star, and none could prefer her cold and darkness to the lighted warmth of lands basking beneath hospitable suns. The planet had continued onward for thousands of years, until encountering the void of the Kyrtma. There, one of the strange and wonderful dramas that the universe so loved had played out. The planet had encountered one of the few brown dwarfs to inhabit the dark void, approached it at just the right speed and distance for a favorable capture to ensue, and was even now taking up an elongated orbit around the dwarf that would be millennia in arriving at stability.

But Antariluma had found a new home, if still a dark one.

"There's some amazing things in this universe," Bobby said, gazing off at the city himself. Mike leaned up against his boyfriend's suit, and the two exchanged warm smiles through the clear globes of their helmets. Pacha, between them now, gazed up at one boy, and then the other, and then offered a tchik-tchik-tchik laugh that made Charlie grin.

"I have nearly been squashed once, my lads. Let's not let it happen again."

Mike and Bobby laughed, but did not push themselves apart.

Kontus came over to Charlie and Kip, and dipped his head inside his helmet. "Again, I wish to thank you for our rescue. I was wondering which of my nephews would get my collection of ancient empire texts, and hoping that it was Ergor 2Rowf and not his brother, Heimor. Ergor would at least recognize it's value, and not sell it too cheaply."

Charlie smiled at that. "They can both just dream on now. You just keep those texts to enjoy in your old age."

Kontus offered them an alarming, toothy smile. "I have yet to cease being amazed by the things your group does, Charlie Boone."

Charlie felt a mild bit of embarrassment, but nodded. "We have been learning some new things lately. I'm just glad it all worked out."

"You fellas wanna see the inside of the city?" Mike called over the suit com. "It's really quite a sight."

"It is that," Kontus agreed. "The Juacarvo appeared to have been even larger than me. Their interiors are rather, um, spacious."

"I'm up for it," Ricky said, putting an arm around Adrian's shoulders. "How about you, sweetie?"

"Sure. I'd love to see the place."

Max grunted and pointed at them. "You kids be careful what souvenirs you pick up, okay? I get some really strange signals from this place."

"Hear that?" Ragal said, leaning down towards Casper. "Be careful what you touch inside."

"I will!" Casper cast a quick smile at Charlie, and rubbed his small gloved hands together.

Charlie laughed, and threw an arm around Kippy. "See the sights with me, Kip?"

"Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things. Just remember that we have to be back home in time for the fireworks."

"I haven't forgotten!" Max called. "I'm really good with time, remember? Sheesh!"

"Just one thing first!" Mike said then. "Everybody look up!"

Charlie and Kip looked skyward, but nothing seemed to happen.

"That's your cue, Murcha!" Mike called, laughing.

"Oh!" The ship mind's voice came over the com. "Sorry!"

From the direction of the grounded ship, a host of trails raced skyward. They disappeared above, and in a moment a terrific blue fire lanced across the dark sky, popping and billowing, and filled with arcing sparks of many different colors.

Kippy gasped, and then cheered, and Charlie also laughed and gazed in amazement at the light show above. The great blue glow was the hydrogen atmosphere burning, he realized, but it gave a magnificent background to the colorful sparks that danced and paraded about inside.

"It's beautiful!" Kippy called, laughing.

"Just for you guys," Mike said quietly. "With our thanks."

"Amen," Bobby echoed.

"Indeed," Pacha added. "Thank you all."

"It was harder to get them to burn in colors in this atmosphere," Kontus confided. He seemed slightly embarrassed as he patted each of them on the shoulder. "But the results are most pleasing, I think."

"Yes, they are," Kippy agreed, nodding. "Thanks, guys. I know that came from the heart."

Kontus looked pleased, and turned to rejoin Mike and the others. As soon as he was there, Mike and Bobby started off towards the city, Pacha still held between them. They heard Max sigh over the com, and then he and Ricky and Adrian fell in with them.

Charlie leaned closer to his boyfriend. "As good as the fireworks at home?"

Kippy sighed. "Better."

Charlie smiled, and squeezed the suited form of his boyfriend against him. "Ready?"

"Yes, Charlie. Take my hand?"

Charlie slid his hand down Kippy's arm, and clasped the other boy's gloved hand. Even through the non-conductive material of the suit, he could still feel the warmth of his boyfriend's heart. He squeezed Kippy's hand, and felt him squeeze back.

Mike turned and waved at them to come on, and they hurried to catch up, while the brief scatter of artificial stars in the sky above them slowly dispersed.

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