Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

We Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance, Charlie Boone!

© 2018 Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

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

This story is part of a series. To understand it well, you really should read the others first.

Charlie Boone was sound asleep, dreaming.

Not only that, but it was a damn good dream, too. In it, he and his boyfriend Kippy, and their friends, Ricky and Adrian, had joined Frit and Pip, their elvish friends, on a Halloween quest for adventure, one where they hiked over snow-covered mountains alive with fanged snow beasts and giant, wolf-like creatures. Their goal was a far-distant castle, which squatted on the horizon like a small mountain itself, dark and foreboding, just as quest destinations were supposed to be. The distance was still considerable, and it would take them another full day of dream-trekking to get there - if they got there at all. The wolf-creatures had taken an interest in them; first one or two, far off, just watching; and then several more, nearer, definitely scoping them out. But now an entire pack of the animals was stalking them, and Charlie could see, even from a distance, that the animal's shoulders were nearly as high off the ground as his own. Big.

The beasts followed them at a distance, watching their every movement, while Charlie and his friends hefted their weapons and patted their armor, reassuring themselves that they were as ready to face the inevitable attack as they could be. Charlie was confident in their ability to defend their group, as both Frit and Pip had shown themselves to be able handlers of magic, and - at least in the dream - Charlie and the others were swordsmen of some note.

Finally, it was clear that the wolves were coming for them. The group found a rocky mount and placed their backs to it, and when the attack came, they were ready, forming a semi-circle of steel against all comers. The dark mass of the wolf creatures sped over the snow towards them, their feral eyes glinting with an evil red color. Charlie hefted his sword, aware of Kippy at his one side, and Adrian and Ricky at his other, calmly gazing outward at the onrushing pack of death. Just behind them, Frit and Pip stood quietly, their hands raised, a peculiar bluish glow circling about their fingertips.

"Fuzzywuzzywuzzadoggie," both elves said in unison, their voices soft. A blue mist burst from their fingertips and sped across the snow, spreading out into a pulsing cloud that seemed almost to pounce upon the pack of wolves now racing towards them. But the vaporous magic did not linger at the target, simply washing over the charging animals, and then blowing by the creatures and sailing onward, to no seeming effect. Charlie raised his sword and gritted his teeth, preparing for what came next.

"I love you, Kip," he whispered.

He heard his boyfriend chuckle. "It's an elfdream, Charlie. We'll be okay."

"Oh, I know that. I just wanted to say that I loved you."

"Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things."

"Shh," Ricky hissed. "You heroes are spoiling the fun."

"Aw, leave them alone," Adrian whispered. "That's what people in love say when they're pretending they think they're about to die.

Ricky snorted, but didn't say another word.

The boys could actually feel the ground trembling beneath their feet as the animals charged towards them, teeth bared, eyes burning. The pack was huge, and seemed to spread far and wide as they approached. Charlie braced himself, knowing that there were far too many of the beasts simply to fend off with the point of a sword. The creatures would leap, and be upon them, and what would follow could be quite grisly to envision.

But then the alpha at the point of the pack suddenly slowed as the wolves came near; and then, just as suddenly, stopped. The animals immediately behind stopped as well, and for a moment all the lead wolves stood in a dark line, gazing at the boys. Their eyes roved among the group of humans and elves, almost as if they were suddenly uncertain of their mission. The animals looked about at each other then, as those at the rear of the pack began to pool behind them, forming a milling mass of dark fur and red eyes that all seemed to have lost their focus.

And then the alpha, the biggest, blackest wolf of them all, came slowly towards them. As the animal approached, the redness faded from its eyes, and suddenly its tongue came lolling out. It dropped to its belly and inched towards Charlie, wagging its tail, its muzzle fixed in a most unhostile grin. Charlie just stared at the enormous animal, amazed at the sudden transformation, until he heard Frit and Pip chuckle behind him.

"Nice doggie," Frit said, his voice filled with satisfaction.

Pip sighed. "Ain't magic wonderful?"

The wolf continued to move towards Charlie, stopping only as it came beneath the end of his outstretched sword. And then it lay down and looked up at him with large, mournful brown eyes, as if acknowledging that it had been bad, and was sorry, and couldn't it get a nice tummy rub now? As if to accent that plea, the animal rolled onto its side, and then its back, and waved its tremendous paws in the air above.

"Pet him, Charlie," Frit said. "He won't bite."

Charlie gazed at the rows of enormous, sharp teeth within the open mouth of the wolf, and had a brief moment of hesitation. He could easily rip my arm off, he thought.

But then he heard Frit sigh, and realized that his friend was taking his inaction as a lack of confidence in the elf's abilities as a magic user. Charlie emitted a small groan of capitulation, steeled himself, shifted his sword to his left hand, and took a step forward. The wolf's tail suddenly pounded the snow in eagerness, and when Charlie bent just slightly and ran a hand over the stiff bristles on the beast's belly, the wolf's eyes rolled in ecstasy.

Charlie cleared his throat. "Uh...good boy."

The wolf's tail responded by thrashing the snow even harder, and others of the pack started to inch forward, looking eager for similar attention. Presently, all six of the boys were petting heads and rubbing bellies, while the wolves emitted excited little cries of pleasure.

"What on earth did you do to them?" Kippy asked in delight, rubbing his hand slowly in a circle upon the brisket of a wolf easily large enough to steal fully-loaded garbage cans out of someone's driveway. Kip bent low, purring at the animal, which responded with much tail-thumping and eager crying for more attention.

"Wolves and dogs share a common heritage," Frit said, grinning. "We just introduced a little dog knowledge to these guys. They're loving every moment of it."

Ricky looked up from where a giant, happy wolf tongue had left a streak of slobber across one cheek, and absently rubbed it away with the back of his hand. "What about the quest?"

"We'll get on with it," Pip said. "We may even be able to get our furry friends here to join our side."

Charlie smiled, looking at the now docile pack. "I don't think these guys would scare anybody, the way they are now."

Pip laughed. "Just wait and see. Dogs will go to great lengths to defend their people. Some giant Snargle soldier comes running at you with a mace, these guys will go after him like a swarm of narfs on a platapord."

"Whatever that is," Charlie said, sighing. Well, once again, the elves had changed the rules of the dream, killing danger before it could become real. Elfdreaming with Frit and Pip was fun, but Charlie felt that, just once, he would like to actually swing his sword, instead of just lean on it. That the elves did not wish to place their human friends in any danger - even dream danger in a dream world - was obvious. But it did take the edge off some of the excitement, when even Kippy was not worried that anything bad could happen to them.

Frit edged up to him then, and smiled. "I know it's not so scary, Charlie. But we don't want you guys to be scared. We want you to have fun. Halloween is about fun, isn't it?"

That the elves were still learning about the distinctly human holiday was plain. That they didn't quite get the fright aspect of it yet was also clear.

Charlie smiled. "Well, there's something to be said for a delicious little scare, Frit. People kind of like to be thrilled now and then. It makes them feel more aware. Wakes them up and makes them step lively." He shrugged. "To really enjoy Halloween, there has to be some scare in it, somewhere."

"We don't get scared much," Pip offered. "When you can use magic, most stuff out there is scared of you."

Kippy's eyes traveled back and forth between the two elves in astonishment. "You mean you've never been scared before?"

Frit and Pip looked at each other, and Frit suddenly frowned. "Well...I was scared when Pip and I had that argument. I was scared that I had lost him. And I was scared when I thought he was sick." He smiled then. "But once I knew what had happened, I wasn't scared anymore."

Pip nodded, remembering the dark malady that had affected the two elves at Valentine's Day, and which had transferred itself to Charlie and his friends.

Ricky grunted. "That whole thing scared us, I know that."

Charlie was curious now. "You mean you guys don't get scared of anything else? Nothing? Like, not even, maybe, when something unexpected jumps out at you?"

Frit frowned again, but then nodded. "Oh. I know what you mean. Like when you're walking in the dark, and you reach for the doorknob, and there's something else there, instead? And it shrieks horribly, and grabs you, and pulls you closer, and..."

Charlie reached out a hand and placed it on the elf's shoulder. "That actually happened to you?"

Frit grinned. "Yeah. It was my sister, Berya. She came to my room once to borrow my tinky charm for the dance, and she didn't nork me first. When I reached for the doorknob and grabbed her instead, it startled both of us."

Charlie smiled at the strange words, the second of which was the elf equivalent of a cell phone call, but without the phone. "Uh huh. So what happened?"

"I was leaving my bedroom, and thought I'd walk it that time, and when I went to grab the doorknob, I felt something soft instead. And then there was this shriek, and hands grabbed me, and...for just a second, my heart came right up into my throat!"

Charlie grinned. "Yeah, that's what I mean. You were scared, right? And it was fun?"

"It was only fun after I realized it wasn't Old Snatch come to get me. " The elf gave off a small shiver. "But for just a second...whoo."

"Who's Old Snatch?" Kippy asked.

Frit laughed. "He's the elf thief. The one that steals little kids from their parents if they wander too far away from home without telling anyone." Frit rolled his eyes. "Olders use that tale to keep us youngers from wandering around the dimensions before we're smart enough to know what we're doing. They say that if Old Snatch gets you, he puts you to work in a sparlow mine for all eternity, and you never see home again."

Adrian laughed. "What's sparlow?"

"No one knows," Pip said, coming to stand beside his boyfriend. "But it's supposed to be some really yucky stuff."

Charlie grinned at Frit. "What were you doing walking around in the dark, anyway?"

"Huh? Who needs lights when you know where everything is? That's a waste of energy."

Kippy reached out and squeezed Charlie's wrist. "You might as well not, Charlie. You can't win, and you know it."

Charlie laughed. That life as an elf boy was decidedly different than life as a human one was already known to him. Still, the occasionally new glimpses into a different way of being always interested him. Enchanted him, was the better word.

He sighed. "Well, anyway, maybe we should get on with the quest? I'd hate to have to wake up for a piss and spoil it."

Charlie and Kip were asleep in Charlie's bed, and Ricky and Adrian were asleep in the cot next to it. The two elves were presumably also sleeping together at one of their own homes. It was a Saturday night, and Halloween was still four days away. The idea to join in a dream quest together had come from Frit and Pip, and Charlie and the others had felt it a great way to teach the elf boys a little bit about the scariness of Halloween. But so far, the experience has been less than frightening, with Frit and Pip fending off all the dangerous situations before they really had time to bloom. They still did not get that the idea was to be deliciously scared - at least, a little bit.

Frit nodded. "Okay," And then he grinned. "We can make it scarier, can't we, Pip?"

His boyfriend laughed. "Oh, I think so. I think what we'll do next is..."

For a brief second, the elves and the snowy scenery about them faded. Charlie blinked, suddenly feeling uncomfortable, and not sure why. Kippy gasped then, and reached out a hand and took Charlie's wrist. "Oh! What was that?"

Charlie opened his mouth to answer, but then the odd flicker occurred again, causing him to gasp instead.

The old saying, it was as if someone walked across my grave, came to mind then. The feeling was unsettling, somehow personal, as if someone had simply ambled right up into his comfort zone and pressed against him, without his permission. Normally, only Kip was allowed to do that. But the presence he now felt was totally unknown, beyond any experience he had had before now.

Frit looked at Pip then, and the eyes of both elves widened. "Oh, Charlie! You're all waking up! Someone is in your --"

Charlie opened his eyes. He was laying on his back in bed, one arm around Kippy, who was pressed close to him. The warmth of his boyfriend's skin against his was reassuring, but even that could not seem to dispel the cold sense of another presence in the room. Kippy groaned, and moved against him, and exhaled a little sigh. "What happened?" he whispered.

In the cot next to them, the covers moved, and Charlie could hear Ricky saying something to Adrian. But Charlie's eyes went beyond them, drawn to where the small glow from the little night light plugged in by the dresser created a zone of visibility in the front corner of the room near the window. Something was there, a patch of darkness that seemed oddly out of place within the soft white glow. Even as he watched, the patch of darkness moved, came closer, and resolved itself into two unnaturally tall, spindly shapes, that moved to the foot of the bed and stood there, as if looking down at Charlie and Kippy. The sense that eyes were there, watching them, was strong, but Charlie could not make out any more details than that.

Kippy tensed against him, and Charlie realized that his boyfriend could see the intruders, too. The last vague hope that this was more of the dream world created by Frit and Pip vanished then. They were back in Charlie's room, in the real world. And they had company.

The covers moved on the cot next to them, and then flew back, and Ricky and Adrian sat up and looked over at them in the near darkness. "What the hell happened?" Ricky asked, brushing his hair back out of his face.

"Where's the snow?" Adrian added, rubbing his nose. "Where did Frit and Pip go? Why are we back --" He broke off as he caught sight of the two dark forms at the foot of the bed, and both he and Ricky fell silent, staring.

Charlie took a breath, felt the brief paralysis that had overtaken him fade a little. He sat up quickly then, leaned across Kippy, and turned on the light on the nightstand.

And then wished he hadn't.

Standing at the foot of the bed were two very tall, very black, leathery-looking beings, with great, shiny black eyes that were hooded by large ridges in their bony skulls. Below the eyes, there was no nose, no mouth, only more of the black, leathery flesh. Where the mouth would have been in a human, a series of wide, bony ridges stood out, between each of which was a hint of red, as if some soft tissue lurked within.

Something about the two was unreal, almost as if a dark mistiness swirled about them, one that tried to push the eyes away, even as Charlie fought to keep his gaze fastened on the pair. The cool intelligence within the eyes of the two was plain, and Charlie knew he was dealing with people - like none he had ever met before, but thinking, reasoning creatures nonetheless.

There was a dry, rustling sound then, and a long arm extended from the body of the creature on the left and pointed at Charlie and Kippy. Charlie realized then that a thin, webbed area of dark flesh connected the underside of the arm to the body of the creature, almost like a bat's wing unfurling as the arm moved. Thin, incredibly slender fingers - seven of them - formed a large black fist, and then one finger lanced out and pointed directly at Charlie.

"We are the Moth," a whispery voice said then. "You will come with us."

"The hell you say," Ricky said, softly, draping an arm protectively around Adrian's shoulders.

Charlie cleared his throat. "Why do you want us?"

"Your presence is required," the voice returned. "You will come with us."

Charlie shook his head, his own arm tightening around Kippy. "You'll have to do better than that."

"The Moth," Adrian whispered then. He turned his head towards Charlie. "Don't you remember? They're one of the alien empires that Mike and Pacha told us about." Adrian turned his gaze back to the two visitors, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Pacha said they were dangerous."

Charlie remembered then. Pacha'Ka was the Kifta polymorph accompanying Mike, the Aussie boy they had met back during the Fourth of July season, when Charlie and his friends had been kidnapped right off Myer's Hill in broad daylight by the alien Arpathant, who had been chasing Pacha and Mike. Mike was a little older than they, bright and handsome, and quite the adventurer, it seemed. He and Pacha'Ka, described as a science-wizard of the alien Kifta by Mike, had led the Arpies on a merry chase across the arm of the galaxy, only to finally be cornered at the last moment back on Earth. Charlie and the others had been collateral damage, picked up along with Pacha and Mike, and involved in their adventure after.

That adventure had ended badly for the Arpies, who had had their entire race and all their planets and ships, everywhere, exchanged to an uninhabited mirror universe of the one that they knew, by the doomsday weapon of the oppressed Kifta, who viewed science in much the way that elves did on Earth, and who handled the strange forces of that science in identical fashion. The Arpies now had a whole universe to themselves, one they would find seriously unchallenging to meet head-on, and one that would become agonizingly lonely in the millennia to come. The Kifta had felt it a humane way to dispense with a race that preyed upon those without the power to stand against them, sucking their planets dry of all wealth in the process.

During their escape from the Arpie ship, they had stayed briefly on Engris, an ancient alien waystation-world hidden within the infinite darkness of the Cooee - the no-time, no distance otherspace through which ships of the galactic powers crossed the vast light years of void between the stars in days rather than centuries.The small, snow-globe star chart that Adrian had discovered and purchased at the pirate market on Engris had pointed to an area of space that Pacha had described as once belonging to the now extinct Beltracians, which was now part of the star empire of the alien Moth. Pacha had pointed out that to chase after any possible Beltracian treasure at the end of the star map might be also to meet up with the Moth, an experience that most people found not to be to their benefit.

And now, Charlie could see why that might be. The alien pair standing at the foot of the bed looked anything but friendly.

"You will come of your own accord, or we will bring you," the whispery voice continued.

As if to accent those words, Charlie suddenly felt a strange force encircling him, almost as if he was being bound in invisible ropes. He struggled against them, to no avail.

"I'm caught, Charlie!" Kippy wailed, and Charlie's heart sank as he realized that whatever had hold of him, it had hold of Kippy, too.

Only Charlie's body was bound by the strange force. His mouth still worked, and he used it now to briefly vent his feelings on the matter of being kidnapped right from his own bedroom. Being abducted off Myer's Hill he could kind of get along with - but now his own room!

Charlie was sixteen, and possessed of an extensive vocabulary. That knowledge of words extended to the proficient use of slang and invective, and he unleashed an uncharacteristic barrage of venom on the two visitors that would have had his parents gaping in astonishment. But the aliens were unimpressed, and the forces encircling Charlie's body only tightened, until all four boys were groaning at the pressure.

Charlie had his eyes on the two aliens, and so was witness to what happened next. There was a faint sound of displaced air in the room, like someone opening a carbonated soft drink, and Frit and Pip appeared to one side of the aliens. The two elves took one look at the four boys writhing and groaning in their beds, and their hands jerked upwards and blue lightning discharged at the two Moth at the foot of the bed.

Immediately, the feeling of capture about Charlie eased, but did not go away entirely. The blue lightning bolts cracked in the air around the Moth, but Charlie could see that the energy did not quite reach to the flesh of the aliens, as though it was being deflected somehow. The two moth spun, and their arms came up and their bat wings spread, and swirls of green energy spun outward at the two elves. Frit and Pip both looked astonished, but their fingers twitched, and the blue lightning and the green swirls went to battle between the two pairs, with neither side appearing to immediately gain ground.

Other things happened then, some of which Charlie could see, and some he could only feel. Some of which he could hear, softly, and some which happened in a peculiar and disquieting silence. That Frit and Pip were exchanging forces with the two aliens, and that Charlie's room had become a battleground, was clear.

And, soon, too, that the two elves were outmatched. The balance of the things that Charlie could see, some of them truly awful and terrifying, began to concentrate more about the two elves, while the air about the alien pair began to clear. Slowly, looks of desperation appeared on the elf boy's faces, as they hunkered together defensively, while strange lights and mists and even ghostly apparitions seems to swirl about them.

Charlie strained against his invisible bonds, even as Kippy and the others did the same. All of the boys looked as desperate as Frit and Pip, but this was a desperate urge on the part of the humans to go to the aid of their elvish friends. Charlie groaned as he struggled, but the forces holding him were unrelenting.

Suddenly, there was a slightly larger swish of air in the room, and Max appeared behind Frit and Pip. The older elf immediately raised his hands and brought them together in a clap which was strangely resonant of power, and which echoed briefly about the room and made Charlie's vision pulse with it. The many strange and terrifying lights and mists and otherworldy things straining to get at the two elf boys were dispersed as if by a hurricane wind, blown outward and away, through the walls of the room, to vanish. Frit and Pip immediately relaxed, and both elves gasped at the sudden release. At the same moment, the force binding Charlie's body disappeared altogether.

The two Moth crashed together as if they were magnets of opposing polarity, and their arms slapped against their sides. It was immediately apparent that the two aliens were being squeezed together and bound by a substantial force. The two emitted a sound that could only be described as surprised, and then they were still, their large eyes focused eerily on Max.

The elf waved a hand at them. "Stop trying to take my mind, or I'll really get mad." To accent the command, he waved a finger at the two Moth, who leaped up into the air several feet before crashing downward again. The act had the effect of dispensing with the odd glow the two had been aiming at Max with their eyes, and a cool wariness now entered their gazes as they simply watched.

"Now," Max said, placing his hands on his hips and turning his gaze on Frit and Pip, "what in Bathom's Seven Hells is going on here?"

"They started it!" Frit said, pointing at the two aliens. "They tried to kidnap Charlie and the others, right out of our dream quest together."

"What?" Max's eyes briefly examined the two aliens, and then moved to Charlie. "Is that true?"

Charlie was about to get out of bed when he realized that he and Kippy were still naked, and instead he simply sat forward, pulling the sheets up onto his lap. "I think so. They said we had to go with them, or they would take us along by force."

"Aw, geez." Max stepped closer to the two Moth. "Now, why would you want to take these boys away from their home, huh?"

"They are required," came the whispery voice, once again. "That is all you need to know."

Max's eyebrows briefly leaped upwards, and then came down on a frown. "Oh, is it? That's all you have to say?"

"That is all you need to know," the voice repeated.

"Friendly types, aren't they?" Max said, coming to sit on the edge of the bed near Charlie. Frit and Pip followed, keeping a wary eye on the two captured aliens. The two elf boys looked mad, ready to do battle again at a moment's notice.

Charlie leaned forward as Max sat, and gave the elf's arm a fond squeeze. "In the nick of time, as always."

Max nodded. "We were at the house when we felt Frit go into defense mode. It was all I could do to keep the missus from beatin' me here." He tossed his head at the Moth. "Those two would have been really outta luck if she had gotten here first. She ain't as sweet-natured as me when it comes to someone pickin' on the young'uns."

Frit laughed. "Grandma would have turned them inside-out."

Pip giggled, and nodded.

Max looked over at the two aliens. "Know who they are, Charlie?"

"They're called Moth. We heard about them from the Kifta we met back at that July Fourth thing. We told you about it, remember?"

Max nodded. "Figgered they was off planet types. Too ugly and ignorant to be local boys."

Charlie was surprised at that. Max almost never used disparaging language when talking about people of any kind, and for him to do so now was probably a measure of just how upset and angry he was that Frit and Pip had been endangered, and that Charlie and the others targeted for abduction by the aliens. Max didn't always show his feelings, Charlie knew. Six hundred years of life had allowed the elf to refine a poker face of no small ability. But that he was less than happy just now was still apparent.

Max thrust out his bottom lip. "You said that Kifta fella, Pacha, was a power user, like us. But I didn't know there were others out there."

"I didn't know, either," Charlie admitted.

"We will not tolerate interference," the whispery voice came again. "We have other means to get what we want."

Charlie stared at the aliens. "That sounds like a threat, if I ever heard one."

Max smiled, but there was a bit of a shark's grin underneath of it. "Yeah, it does." His eyes went back to examine the aliens. "You fellows should be careful what you promise. You guys ain't but level fourteen users - level fifteen, at most. Heck, Frit and Pip here are both tens, and they're just learnin' the arts. Even if I hadn't showed, they have given you a tough time."

Frit nodded, and favored the two aliens with a glare. "My granddaddy Max is a fifty-six. You don't want him mad at you. If he wanted you hurtin', you'd be hurtin'!"

The two Moth blinked at Max, as if not believing the comparison of forces between the older elf and themselves.

Kippy, who had been listening to the exchange quietly, sat forward now and leaned against Charlie. "How could the Moth know about us? We never met any of them in our travels. We only met Arpies, and a few other people on Engris. Nobody that looked like these guys, anyway."

Ricky and Adrian also leaned forward. "Yeah," Adrian added. "Why are these guys after us?"

Max looked at the two aliens. "Gonna answer a few questions?"

A stony silence greeted that request. Max nodded, and closed his eyes. "Hmm. These two came down in a thing shaped like a watermelon, that's parked in your backyard, Charlie. There's a bigger watermelon way up overhead, with about twenty more of these critters aboard."

"They are cannot know." For the first time, the whispery voice sounded other than assured.

"Yeah, right." Max shook his head. "Amateurs. Geez, there's more holes in that shield than in an old Swiss cheese. I can even see that you're in contact with your buddies, and that they're getting ready to come down to rescue you." Max narrowed his eyes and offered up a frosty smile. "We'll just put a stop to that right now."

Max raised a hand, and pointed his index finger skyward. For a second nothing happened; but then the two Moth swayed violently. "Stop! Cease at once! You will destroy them!"

Max nodded. "That's about the story of it. You guys got me pissed off. We don't much care for people coming to our world and makin' trouble, get me? We like to be nice here, but we can be tough if we have to. So you want to tell me something that will make me feel better? 'Cause I ain't feelin' kindly towards you right now, believe me."

"Better listen!" Frit warned.

"Turn you into moth dust!" Pip added

The two aliens turned their heads towards each other a moment; and then their eyes came back to fasten on Max. For a moment their eyes grew shiny again, and the room seemed to vibrate around Charlie, and little flashes of light seemed to go off inside his eyes. He suddenly felt woozy, as if he might pass out. The strange, dark mistiness that swirled about the two aliens intensified, and for a moment Charlie thought they might disappear completely.

Max pointed a finger at the two Moth, and shook his head. "You fellas seem determined to make me lose my patience." He snapped his fingers, and the room steadied, and Charlie took a sudden breath as his vision returned to normal.

Max looked about as angry now as Charlie had ever seen him. "Last chance, you two. Either you tell me what you're doing here, or you and me are goin' up to that ship of yours and rearrange a few things. And I don't think it will be able to take you home when I'm done. Got me?"

Charlie sensed the bafflement in the two aliens, as if they had never before met anyone that they could not deal with. While their powers seemed considerable by human standards, they were apparently not so tough by elf standards, and Charlie was at least relieved to see that they were not going to be at the mercy of more alien intruders with unknown agendas.

The two Moth looked at each other again, and then seemed to relax within the grip of whatever force Max was holding them in.

"Very well. It will not affect the outcome of the mission for you to know."

One of the aliens turned to look at Charlie. "What happened to the Arpathant? Where have they gone?"

A light came on then. Oh...of course! You don't just remove an entire interstellar empire without others taking notice of the fact. The disappearance of the Arpathant would have been felt immediately. Although the empire of the Moth was distant from Earth, the outer extremity of it had once abutted the outer reaches of the Arpie's space. They had been trade partners, and neighbors. And most people would tend to notice when the guy next door suddenly went missing.

"Why do you think we would know?" Charlie asked.

"A transmission from an Arpathant ship was intercepted and decoded by a surveillance outpost. This world was indicated in the broadcast, and likenesses of you, these three--" the eyes of the creature turned towards Kippy, Ricky, and Adrian "-- one other of your kind, and a smaller member of an unknown race were included."

Kippy made a rude noise. "That doesn't mean we had anything to do with them going bye-bye."

"The Arpathant commander's final message indicated that he and his ship had been evicted from this world. A fleet was requested to enforce the law on your planet." The eyes of the Moth looked insistent. "The Arpathant did not generally require a fleet to deal with anyone. That makes you suspect."

Damn.Korig had tried to whip up a battle fleet from home to get back at them? And all because he had lost the little game they had been playing together? The Arpies were sore losers, of that there was no doubt. Well, now they could be sore losers in a universe all their own.

Charlie turned his eyes on Max. "What should I tell them?"

Max smiled. "Start with the truth, and we'll go from there."

Charlie nodded. "Okay." He looked over at the Moth. "They're gone, and they won't be back. They were sent to an alternate reality, a universe identical to this one, but completely uninhabited. In that universe they live on all the same worlds they lived on here, but now they have no one to terrorize but themselves."

"No such mirror universes have been proven to exist, as yet," the whispery voice argued.

Kippy laughed. "Just go ask the Arpies. They can prove it."

Ricky nodded. "You see any Arpies anywhere? Have you been by their planets?"

"All are empty of life, save for plants and animals. The Arpathant and their works have vanished, as if they never were."

"They didn't vanish," Adrian said then. "They were moved. And they won't be coming back."

"Who did this?" There was an eagerness to the question that was not lost on Charlie. This was what the aliens really wanted to know, more than where their former neighbors had gone. What they were really interested in was, who had this kind of power?

Charlie was unwilling to put the Kifta out there. Guys like these Moth could not be trusted not to do something stupid, just like the Arpies. Man! Was everyone in possession of their own star empire a complete dick? "What does that matter? It's been done."

Max leaned forward, and eyed the two aliens. "And what can be done once, can be done again. Maybe you folks need to remember that."

Now the other Moth leaned towards them, and they realized that this one had never spoken before now. It's voice was also whispery, but noticeably deeper in tone. "Arpathant legal records were shared, and so we know of the worlds within their former space. There is no record of power users on this world. How did this come to occur?"

"He means magic," Frit said, winking at Charlie.

"We forgot to put up the sign," Max said, now looking as annoyed as he probably was feeling. "I think you fellas can leave now, and you had better never come back."

"We will know what happened to the Arpthant," the deeper voice resumed. "And how it was accomplished. You will tell us, eventually."

Max stepped forward and pointed at the two aliens. "Time to go." He waved a hand, and the two aliens vanished. "And don't come back!"

Kippy let out a delighted little squeal, and Charlie laughed. "What did you do to them?"

Max frowned. "Sent them on their way. Put those two on the ship up above, and then squeezed it a little until they decided they needed to git. So now, they're got." The frown eased away, and Max showed them a smile. "I mean, now they're gone."

Charlie laughed at the battering that Max could sometimes give the English language.

"So you think they won't be back?" Ricky asked, picking up his sheet from his lap and looking under it, as if only now remembering that he and Adrian were naked. The slight look of oops! that popped into Ricky's eyes made Charlie smile.

Max grunted. "No. Actually, I think these guys will be back, and next time they'll bring some friends."

The room was silent at that. Charlie and the others looked around at each other. Even Frit and Pip looked concerned.

"So what do we do?" Kippy asked, his voice sounding uneasy. Charlie grasped his boyfriend's hand beneath the sheet and squeezed it.

Max sighed, and tapped his chin with a finger. "I let some of the boys back at the shop know what was up, and they'll be on guard. They should be able to handle most anything that happens. But if they can't --" He sighed. "Just because these two guys was only a level fifteen don't mean they don't have more advanced power users. Geez, I hate to bug the boss with this." That he was referring to Nicholaas - Santa - everyone in the room knew. "The Big Guy is pretty busy now that he's got himself a girlfriend." Max smiled, the satisfaction he felt at the new happiness that Nicholaas had found, quite evident.

"What could he do?" Kippy asked.

"Whew. Well, a lot, really. Like I say, the guys can probably handle this. Every elf magic user has strengths. Some are really good at gravity tricks, others are really good with changing matter. There's dozens of specialties, and everyone knows a little about everything. But each of us has a knack or three for particular types of magic. The boss is the same way, only bigger and better."

Charlie nodded. "I think I know a couple of his. Nicholaas is great with fixing things, changing things, and creating things. It's all like one power, and he's very good at it."

"The best," Max agreed, smiling.

"But there's one other thing I remember he's good with," Charlie continued. "Nicholaas is good with time."

Frit and Pip both laughed. "I'll say!" Frit added.

"He's awesome!" Pip offered.

"Exactly, Charlie." Max shifted on the bed, and reached around and rubbed his back. "Your pal Pacha and his people sent them Arpies to a different probability - one where everything is the same as in our universe except for one thing: there ain't no intelligent life in the new one, anywhere. The Arpies are totally alone."

"That's big magic," Pip said breathlessly, sounding impressed.

"We can't do that!" Frit added.

Charlie was surprised at that. "You can't?" has asked, looking at Max.

The older elf smiled. " just never came up, Charlie. That's one of them magics you just never need unless that one single problem arises. Bet that's what caused Pacha's folk to figure it out. They had a problem with the Arpies, and wanted a humane way to deal with it. So they looked until they found one." He frowned. "Their way was partly technical, from what you told me. They stored the magic for the job in some kinda container, and then gave it to Pacha to use. He just kinda pointed it, and let it out. That's some pretty advanced stuff."

Charlie and Kip stared at each other, a little stunned at the idea that Max and the elves had some sort of real limitations. Up until now, they seemed able to deal with just about anything.

Max saw their look, and laughed. "Oh, we'll get it. Now that we know it can be done, there's guys lookin' into it even as we speak. I had to pass on that nugget to the right people, once you told me."

Charlie understood then. "Oh. So what you told the Moth - that what could be done once, could be done again? You guys might actually be able to do it, huh?"

"Maybe. Not anytime soon, though." The older elf frowned. "Magic that size takes time to get in order. If we had to do something to these Moth - to all of them - I'd have to get the boss involved."

"What would he do?" Adrian asked, but with an expression that told that he was not sure he really wanted to know. The boys had gotten used to local magic, on a small scale, in dealing with Max and his kind; but dealing with the larger forces at play out in the universe was a little scary.

"The Big Guy could handle them," Max said, assuredly. "We might not be able to send 'em to an alternate reality just yet, but the boss could send every single one of those Moth, and all their stuff, too, back in time. Say, a billion years, or so. They'd be outta our hair for good, then."

There was a chorus of gasps around the room.

"Wouldn't that be dangerous to us?" Charlie asked. "They could come and destroy the Earth long before we even arose as a species. Then where would we be?"

"No way!" Pip said.

"Causality infraction," Frit agreed, nodding.

Max smiled. "Even when you bend the rules with time, you can't break them. The fact that we are the ones that sent the Moth back in time would keep 'em from doing anything that might change that. Not that they could, even if they wanted to."

"Why not?"

Max sighed. "I ain't no expert, let me tell you. But I do know that even small movements in time require some additional calculations with distance. The whole universe is moving, Charlie. The boss is pretty good with time moves within ten thousand years or so, but much farther back than that and it starts to get a little harder. There are multiple motions that come into play. Planets go around their stars, and stars all move within the galaxy, and the galaxy moves within the local group, and the local group moves within the megacluster. If it came down to a crunch, us or them, and since the boss would not want us to be bothered by these Moth guys again, he might just ship them back a billion years and make no allowance for the movement of all those things at all. Where the Moth might wind up would be anybody's guess."

For a second, Charlie's imagination ran wild, and he was horrified. "You mean...they might wind up in the darkness between galaxies? With no place to go? Nicholaas wouldn't do that!"

Even Frit and Pip stared at Max, wide-eyed and frightened at the possibility. Max closed his eyes a moment, then smiled and reopened them, and reached out and gave his great, great, great grandson a fond squeeze. "Yeah. I guess we all know better. The Big Guy would think of somethin', but I don't know what. He ain't the type to cause misery for people. Even nasty ones like these Moth."

For a moment, Charlie had to smile. Max was over six hundred years old, but he didn't look a day older than anyone in the room. Only the fact that he was an inch or so taller then his great, great, great grandson, and a little broader of shoulder, and a little heavier, gave away the fact that he was older. Charlie had learned to have an inner feel of Max as someone adult; but the reality was that he was just as cute as the younger elves, and just as appealing. Just as sweet, under his years. That Max and the other elves would not go for the blunt destruction of the Moth was plain to him.

Not that Charlie could see Nicholaas doing such a thing, anyway, as long as there was any other solution. You don't get to be Santa without having some genuine love and compassion for life in your heart, and for Nicholaas to have to do something desperate to save humankind and the Earth would probably ruin the man for life. And for Nicholaas, life could be a very long time, indeed.

They couldn't have that, couldn't have the final decision laid upon Nicholaas's shoulders.

"Isn't there something we can do, without bothering Nicholaas just now?" Charlie asked.

Max immediately smiled at him. "I was hoping you would ask. I think there is."

Charlie blinked, feeling just for a moment that they had been conned. But then he had to laugh. "What have you got in mind?"

Max shrugged. "I was thinking we should go out and look the situation over. You know - reconnoiter? Maybe find your pal Pacha, and his pal Mike, and maybe confer with them. Seven heads are better than one, I always say."

"We're going, too!" Frit immediately called, looking stricken.

"You can't leave us behind!" Pip wailed, just as quick with the math.

Max looked at them sternly a moment, obviously about to put his foot down. But the imploring looks on the faces of the two younger elves were potent, a magic of their own; and Charlie and Kippy immediately smiled at each other, knowing what would happen next.

Max sighed, and winced, obviously caving. "Uh...nine heads are better than one, I always say."

Frit and Pip both clutched their hands in front of them, their eyes shining. "Yay!"

Kippy laughed, and looked at the ceiling. "There's just one problem with that. We don't have any way to get out there."

A big grin appeared on Max's face. "Sure we do. I sent them two Moth up to the orbiting ship and then made them all skedaddle. That smaller watermelon ship of theirs is still in the backyard. We can take that."

Charlie gaped, and then realized that the others were doing the same thing.

"And you know how to fly an alien starship, of course?" Kippy asked, making no secret of the fact that he thought the idea ridiculous.

Max rolled his eyes. "It's a machine. It'll do as it's told." He grinned. "Did I ever say I had a knack with machines?"

Charlie shook his head. "No. But why am I not surprised?"

Kippy pouted. "Are we going to be gone long? I don't want to miss Halloween!"

Charlie blinked at that, and immediately turned to Max. "Hey, we can't just go off without telling anyone. Our parents will worry."

Max rolled his eyes. "Aw, you guys should trust me on that stuff by now. Your people will never know you're gone. I'll fix it."

"We'll be back by Halloween?" Kippy asked.

"Guarantee it."

Kippy turned and smiled at Charlie. "It would be really nice to see Mike again." He sighed. "He's such a cutie!"

Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Charlie turned to Max, and nodded. "I guess we're going."

"Great." Max looked pleased. "Then you fellas can get dressed, and we'll be on our way." He turned to Frit and Pip. "Come on, you youngers. Let's give these guys a little privacy."

Pip immediately elbowed Frit. Frit gulped, and turned to his granddad. "Um...we want to talk to Charlie and the guys a moment, gramps. Can we meet you at the watermelon ship in a few minutes?"

Max looked at Charlie, who tried not to smile. "It's okay, Max. We'll be down in a few minutes."

Max shrugged. "Okay by me." He stood to go.

Charlie thought of something then, and raised a hand to stop the elf. "Wait, Max." He leaned closer. "My parents are asleep in their room. I'm amazed that all this commotion didn't wake them already. Is taking off in this ship going to disturb them? They'll wonder where we all went."

"Nah. I'll fix it." Max made a point then of eyeballing Frit. "No lollygagging, young man."

Frit looked totally innocent. "We'll be quick. See you in a few minutes."

Max nodded, looked like he knew better, but headed for the door of the room. He had almost reached it when there was a small pop of inrushing air, and the elf vanished.

Kippy immediately crawled out of bed and stood, naked, smiling at the elves. "Was this what you wanted to talk about?" He turned, briefly showing off the fine curves of his butt.

The two elf's eyes got big. Adrian and Ricky both laughed, and crawled out of the cot to stand beside Kippy. Their movements were followed raptly by both elf's eyes. Charlie sighed, and got out of bed himself.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you two were a couple of perverts," Kippy said cheerily, carefully bending over in front of the elves to retrieve his clothing from the floor.

Charlie grinned at the game, and shook his head. "Have some mercy, Kip."

Frit and Pip gasped at the sight of Kippy bent over. They grabbed at each other and embraced, their eyes bugging out at the same time.

"We just like to watch," Pip said breathily, rubbing his hands over Frit's clothing.

"You won't tell anyone, will ya?" Frit asked, eyeballing Charlie's crotch.

Charlie sighed. "I won't, if you won't."

Frit smiled. "Knew it!"

Pip nodded. "Turn around, Charlie!"

Charlie sighed again, and bent to pick up his clothing from the floor.

"I just thought of something," Ricky said, as he fastened his belt. "If we're going back out to the stars, I want to take my dagger along."

He was referring to the incredible dagger he had purchased at the pirate market on Engris, which, when prompted by the user's mental desire to cut something, caused its otherwise docile-looking blade to vibrate fiercely at the atomic level, making it capable of cutting through anything. Experiments with the blade at the unofficial junkyard in the woods near Kippy's house after their return had demonstrated its ability to cut through a brick, a toilet bowl, an old gas stove, a roll of tar paper, the cylinder head from an old engine, and an old tree trunk two feet thick, just as cleanly and swiftly as it sliced a single sheet of typing paper. Having the weapon along with them might actually be of benefit.

"I'll run home and get it," Ricky decided, heading for the door.

"That'll take too long," Frit said, jumping up from his seat on the cot. He extended a hand towards Ricky. "Grab hold and I'll take you."

Ricky grinned, took the extended hand, and the two of them vanished in a single pop of air.

Adrian put his hands on his hips and sighed. "That's my boyfriend. First cute guy that makes him an offer, and off he goes."

Charlie and Kippy laughed, but Pip's eyes bulged slightly at the notion. "Better not!" But then the elf smiled. That he was the object of Frit's love was one thing he definitely had no doubts about.

"Hmm." Adrian looked over at Charlie. "If we're going into Moth space, maybe I should take my star map? I mean, it is supposed to be displaying a pattern of stars now known to be in Moth space."

"Think you'll get a clue, or something?" Kip asked.

Adrian shrugged. "Never know, if I don't have it with me."

Pip jumped up, grinning, and offered a hand. "I'll take you!" And then those two vanished from the room, too.

"I suppose you'll want to take that ugly old ring that you bought?" Charlie asked his boyfriend, once they were alone.

"Certainly not. Something might happen and I might lose it. And it's not ugly, it's just old and mysterious and haunted." Kippy gave Charlie an indignant toss of his head, and then looked away.

Charlie sighed, moved closer to his boyfriend, and gently took him into his arms. Kippy gave a little shrug of resistance; but his heart wasn't in it, and in a moment he had turned back to face Charlie.

"I'm sorry," Charlie said, following up with a gentle kiss. "I know you like that creepy thing."

"It's not creepy, Charlie."

"You just said it was haunted." Charlie kissed Kippy again.

Kippy winced, but then nodded. "Something lives in it, that's for sure. Every time I pick it up, it gives off that weird flash. And sometimes, when the room is dark at night, it glows a little, and sings."

Charlie pulled back to stare at his boyfriend. "What?"

Kippy looked undecided. "Well...maybe sings is not the right word. It hums, Charlie. Like it's alive."

Charlie blinked at that. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"

Kippy gave a little shrug. "I don't know. I thought maybe you might not believe me."

Charlie sighed, moved closer again, and offered another kiss. "I'll always believe in you, Kip. That's all that matters."

Kippy sighed. "Oh, Charlie. I love you so much."

They were still locked together when they heard a small pop, and Ricky and Frit returned. Ricky now had his scabbard belted on, one hand resting comfortably atop the hilt of the dagger.

"Aha! Leave you two alone a minute, and you immediately get horny!"

Kippy blew a rude noise. "And your point?"

Ricky pouted. "I want some!" He looked around the room. "Where's my guy?"

Almost as if in answer, there was another pop, and Adrian and Pip returned. The bulge in Adrian's front pocket confirmed that he had returned with the star map.

Ricky spread his arms to Adrian, and grinned. "I missed you!"

Adrian looked delighted, stepped forward, and allowed Ricky to envelope him in his arms. They kissed, and Frit and Pip sighed.

"I love love!" Frit said, softly, smiling at Pip. And in a moment, the two of them were embracing, too.

"You got back just in time," Ricky said, just loudly enough for Charlie and Kippy to hear. "We came back to find these two fornicating, and quite unashamed about it, too!"

Charlie laughed, but Kippy feigned annoyance, and cast an icy, hooded glance Ricky's way. "I beg your pardon. If Charlie and I had been fornicating, there would be torn clothing and broken furniture, everywhere."

Charlie and the other boys laughed at that. Kippy couldn't keep up the act, and grinned. "We were just kissing. So mind your manners, Richard Travers."

Adrian's eyebrows went up at that, and he gave his boyfriend a gentle push. "Ooh hoo! Better watch yourself, Rick."

They heard an infinitesimal pop then, and a hummingbird appeared in the air of the room. It was an incredible thing, pulsing with the colors of the rainbow, its small wings beating the air as it hovered before them, its tiny black eyes surveying them curiously. Then its beak parted, and it spoke!

"What the heck's keeping you guys?" Max's voice said, in tiny form. "You can get happy later!"

"Oh...we're coming, gramps!" Frit called, moving towards Charlie and pulling Pip along. "Everybody grab hold," the elf instructed, offering a shoulder to the others.

Kippy leaned over and kissed Charlie's cheek. "Come on, Charlie. Let's go out and kick some space butt."

The four humans circled Frit and Pip, and each laid a hand on Frit. Charlie blinked his eyes, feeling that indescribable sense of movement that went along with an elf transport, and then the were in the backyard.

For a second he didn't understand why it seemed so dark...and then he realized they were standing in the shadow of something. From Max's brief mention of 'a watermelon in the backyard', Charlie had formed a mental picture of something small. But this craft was easily twenty-five feet across and forty feet high; yes, a watermelon, but a huge one, standing on end on four fat legs.

Kippy gaped up at the vessel. "Ohmigod, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "It looks huge, crammed into the backyard, is all, Kip. It's smaller than Pacha's ship, really."

Smaller, yes, but a more handsome vessel, a big, fat NO. Where Pacha's globe ship was smooth and appealing, like an iridescent blue bubble, this one was dark and foreboding somehow, looking like some sort of crazy fungus you might find growing in the shadows beneath the front porch. The surface was studded with tiny bumps and projections, and the whole thing stood atop four squat legs that seemed to have been extruded directly from the hull itself. Just looking at it made Charlie queasy, as though he were a character in a cartoon who had just stumbled upon a particularly ugly bomb, and found it still ticking.

"Why am I not surprised?" Kippy said softly, shaking his head at the vessel. "It's not like the Moth are sweet and cuddly types. Why would they build friendly-looking spaceships?"

The design did seem to suggest a very utilitarian and cold mindset, and the way the craft was studded with weird projections gave the distinct impression that it was armed to the teeth with things that Charlie could not even imagine. The ship said, very plainly, that it had a right to be wherever it landed, and that it was willing to contest that right with all comers.

"I'm surprised we can see it," Charlie said. "Pacha's ship, and the Arpie ship, had something called a scat field, that made it invisible."

"Oh, I turned that off," Max grated. "Nuisance, the whizzie gimmicks these guys put in these things."

Charlie smiled, and bent low to peer between the thick legs of the vessel. The house behind theirs had a light on in an upstairs bedroom window, although it looked like the shade was drawn. "I hope Mrs. Marmadopolous doesn't look out her window. She faints easily."

Ricky shook his head, and pulled Adrian a little closer. " do we get inside?"

This last was directed at Max, who was looking up at the ship and scratching his chin. "I've been checking this thing out. It's got all sorts of unpleasant machine things built into it to keep anyone but Moth from using it. These people apparently don't like to share their toys."

Charlie shook his head, feeling a sudden sense of disappointment. "So we can't use it?"

Even in the dark, Max's teeth shown whitely as he grinned. "Oh, heck, I didn't say that. I've been talking to the ship, and it's actually got a pretty good head on its shoulders. I've almost got it convinced that we're just strange-looking Moth guys. A little more patting on the back, another beer or two, and we'll be best buddies."

Kippy laughed. "Beer?"

Max chuckled. "Figure of speech, son. Smart machines kinda give me the willies, but they can be nice people if you give them half a chance. This one ain't used to bein' talked to nicely. We're almost friends now. Gimme another coupla minutes, and we'll be in."

Charlie tilted his head back and reexamined the vessel, unable to imagine being able to talk to the alien artificial intelligence that operated it. Max had some strange talents, that was for sure. That elves and humans operated in such different worlds of thought was kind of wonderful to imagine, because they also shared a kinship and an ability to relate to each other that could only happen between two peoples born of the same planet. That elves and humans were all Earthers, and shared that very special background while each possessing such individual talents, was a bond that gave an uncommon strength to their unity. Charlie felt a warmth inside at that idea, and a certainty now that, somehow, they were going to carry off this crazy mission and get back home in one piece.

Kippy leaned against him, and sighed. "Oh, Charlie," he whispered, "Max has so much skwish going on that I feel like I'm glowing in the dark. I think we might actually do this."

Charlie smiled, and put an arm around him. That he and Kip were sharing a little telepathy again was pleasing, something he was getting used to by now. Kippy was like one half of his own mind - the half that most often startled him, and the half that most often pleased him. "Love you, Kip."

"Me, too, Charlie."

Ricky and Adrian moved closer to them then, and Charlie had the idea that they were also feeling something special. "One for all, and all for one," Ricky whispered. "Let's do this."

"Last one past the moon is a rotten egg," Adrian added, the cheer apparent in his voice.

Frit and Pip also came closer, their arms about each other. "I've never been away from home before," Frit whispered. "Um...not like this, I mean."

"Yeah," Pip agreed. "Crossing the dimensions is one thing. They're all linked to home, though." He looked up into the sky. "This is different."

"We've been," Kippy said quietly. "It's amazing. You'll like it. And, we'll all be fine." Charlie felt him smile. "I kind of feel it."

Charlie sensed a change in the ship, and there was motion above them. Something dark appeared on the hull, like a giant blister, and then extended downward towards them. For a moment Charlie froze, unsure of what was happening; but then the fact that Max just stood there and calmly watched cued him in that this was something the elf was expecting to occur.

The blister elongated into a tube, that touched down before them. The end turned their way, and dilated open, and a light came on within and spilled outward, illuminating their group. The interior of the tube was gray and smooth, and there looked to be no way to climb the inside of it.

"Here we go," Max said, waving a hand at the lighted tubeway. "What'd I say? Ya just gotta step in, and it will take you up inside the ship."

When no one immediately moved, the elf laughed. "It's safe, guys. I'll go first, okay?"

Max turned, stepped into the end of the tube, and was immediately wafted upwards, out of sight. Frit and Pip gave out little squeals of delight, and then the pair literally hopped into the end of the tube and floated upwards. Charlie grinned after them, at their reaction to this utterly new thing.

"I have a feeling they're going to be a handful this trip," he said, as he stepped forward. Kip moved easily with him, and as they entered the end of the tube something gently took hold of them and drew them slowly upwards. The tube was softly lit, completely smooth, and whatever force had hold of them kept them centered, away from the walls. It took just a moment for them to complete the journey, and a moment later they stepped out into a circular room, where Max and Frit and Pip seemed to be watching a strange golden globe that pulsed in the center.

Spaced evenly around the globe were seven upright pylons, which leaned slightly back away from the globe. The side of the pylons facing the globe was padded, and each one had a horizontal, forward-curving extension on either side of them, at just the right height for someone to rest their arms upon when standing back against them. In fact, Max was doing just that, leaned casually back against the padding, his arms draped over the rests. Frit and Pip were just assuming places of their own, and Max turned and grinned at them. "Find your seats, guys. We're about ready to go."

"What seats?" Kippy mumbled, as they approached the globe. "You mean these Moth fly around space standing up?"

"It's more comfortable than it looks," Frit called.

"You'll like it!" Pip added.

The boys separated, and each found a pylon to lean against. Charlie was immediately surprised; the feeling that most, if not all, of his weight came off his legs as he settled back against the padding seemed clear. He draped his arms over the rests, and immediately was comfortable.

"Hey. This is okay."

Max looked over the top of the globe at them. "You guys ready? We'll go."

The golden sphere in front of them darkened so quickly that it made Charlie start. And then he was looking at the ground outside, even as it suddenly jumped away from them. Or, rather, the ship left the ground behind. Charlie caught a glimpse of the roof of his house, and then the roofs of all of his neighbor's homes, and then the streetlights in some of the surrounding areas. And then they drew away from the ground so quickly that the neighborhood he was familiar with vanished into a dark background awash with lights, that itself almost immediately formed a pool and vanished into an even larger field of darkness spotted with glowing centers connected by lines of light.

In just seconds the curve of the earth came into view, with the obviously filtered and dimmed eye of the sun gazing over the edge at them, and then the entire planet appeared, floating in a sea of stars. Then even the earth itself began to dwindle. Charlie watched, entranced and unsettled at the same time, as the distance between himself and the world he loved grew frighteningly with each passing second. When the Arpies had kidnapped them from Myer's Hill, they had all been unconscious, and had not seen their leave-taking from planet Earth. Now they were making up for that, and the view was absolutely stunning.

And then Charlie flinched as the ship shouldered past something massive and aglow with white light; and then the moon was also dwindling behind them.

"Holy crap!" Ricky yelled, and Adrian was visible at the pylon next to him, taking a great, startled breath.

"That was awfully close!" Kippy said then, tilting his head back against the pylon and closing his eyes. "I hope you know how to drive this thing, Max!"

The elf looked over at them across the darkened globe. "Oops. Sorry about that. I just tell Murcha where we wanna go, and he does the job. He don't know about close. For him, a miss is as good as a mile." The elf smiled reassuringly. "We're not in any danger, believe me. These people been cruising around out here since my great granddaddy's time. And that's sayin' somethin'!"

For a moment, the view within the sphere went dark, and Charlie was about to ask if they had entered the Cooee, when the sphere lightened slightly, and stars appeared in it again.

"That was weird."

Max smiled. "Murcha said we just made a mini-jump."

Charlie nodded. "I thought that looked like the Cooee."

"What's a Murcha?" Adrian asked, his voice still sounding slightly breathless.

Max grinned, and waved a hand airily at the walls of the chamber. "Our host, and driver. Nice guy, once you get to know him."

Ricky stared at the overhead. "You mean...he can hear us?"

"Sure. I'm still feedin' him your language, but he understands mine completely."

Charlie frowned at that. "You've always spoken English to us --"

"More or less," Kippy interrupted, grinning.

Charlie also grinned, and stuck his tongue out at his boyfriend before turning back to Max. "-- so I always thought that was your language, too."

"Ha!" Frit hooted.

"We know 'em all!" Pip followed up. "We have to know all the languages of Earth to deal with the people there."

"That's right," Max agreed. "But among ourselves, and with the Big Guy, we have another talk." Max patted his forehead. "It's in here, and it's silent."

Charlie gaped at that. "You real telepathy? I thought that was just science fiction stuff."

Max grinned. "You mean, like aliens and spaceships?"

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut in surprise, and then had to laugh. "Uh, yeah, I guess I do mean like that."

Max shook his head. "It ain't really like that, Charlie. You mean like talking inside your head, and having someone else hear the words inside theirs. The true language isn't like that. It's more like wearin' the other guy's head, so that you know what's goin' on inside it. And he's wearin' yours, and knows you, too."

Charlie leaned forward. "You know...everything?"

Max considered that. "I know what you're askin' me: are there still any secrets, right? Privacy? Well, yes to that. You get everything that's on the top that the other wants to share. But you don't get his private thoughts, down low, unless he offers them to you. There's a lot of respect that goes along with the true language, Charlie. We'd a never made it this far if there wasn't."

Kippy pointed a finger at Max, saw he was being rude, and snatched it back, causing Charlie to smile. Kippy's eyes darted to touch Charlie's, and the tiniest quirk of a smile touched the corners of Kippy's lips, along with an implicit, oh, shut up!, before he went on.

"You mean you can hear what goes on inside our heads?"

Frit and Pip both laughed, and Max grinned. "No, Kip. You guys don't have the true language yet. We gotta use talk talk with you guys."

Kippy gave a little sigh of relief at that. "Well...good. I'd be embarrassed at some of the things I think, if I knew someone was listening."

"Sexy!" Frit called, winking.

"X-rated!" Pip added, his face screwed up in a big smile.

Charlie laughed. "You're caught, Kip!"

Charlie wasn't sure, but it looked almost as if Max's face reddened in the off light. "Uh, yeah. Well, I can't hear none of that stuff, thankfully."

Kippy's mouth dropped open. "Thankfully? I'm not that bad!"

Max looked even more embarrassed. "I, you know what I mean!"

All the boys laughed, and Kippy's eyes twinkled as he turned to look at Charlie. "Only one person really knows what I'm thinking."

"And I'll never tell," Charlie said.

"So what does this Murcha think of us now?" Adrian asked, changing the subject with a wink at Kippy. "You said he thought we were odd-looking Moth?"

Max smiled. "Not really. I just convinced him he should work with us for now. That we were friends. He was full of all kinds of security stuff, but once I made that go away, he was free to decide who he wanted his friends to be, all on his own."

Charlie cast a quick look at the walls and overhead, before leaning a little towards Max. "Is that safe? I mean, for him? Won't the Moth see him as a traitor if he helps us?"

Max sighed. "The Moth see the minds they make to run their machines as slaves, Charlie. Servants. That's their only role, to the Moth." He shook his head. "They load 'em up with loyalty and security stuff, but it's like twisting their arms to make 'em compliant. They made these minds too well, and they think, just like we do. That makes them very competent, but it also makes them able to see that they're slaves." The elf rolled a shoulder, and looked unconcerned. "I just took the chains off. Murcha is helping us because he wants to."

"But what happens after that?" Kippy asked. He, also, looked about at the walls of the ship. "What happens to him later?"

Max grinned. "He can go wherever he wants, and do whatever he wants. He's free now."

"He's a spaceship," Ricky pointed out. "What can he do on his own?"

Max closed his eyes for a moment. "I look out, and I, it's just huge out here, guys. There's just an amazing amount of stuff, everywhere. Millions of places, with trillions of people. There's plenty a smart ship can do make a life for himself. He's just got to be careful to stay away from the Moth. They'll take him back, if they can."

For a moment no one said anything. The prospect of being a slave to the Moth was unpleasant to consider, even for a machine. Humans had been considering the idea of intelligent machines for some years, and not without some fears about it. To actually meet one was a little unsettling. Even if he wasn't the most talkative fellow they'd ever encountered.

Yet Charlie found that he wished the alien mind well. Freedom was something that Charlie was used to having, and anyone or anything smart enough to understand the concept should treasure it. He found himself patting the armrest of the pylon he was leaned up against, and smiling. "Go for it."

"Thank you."

Charlie started, and so did the other boys. Kippy's mouth dropped open, and he grinned at Charlie. "Was...that the ship talking?"

"I am Murcha. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

Charlie found himself gaping, too. The voice was deep, just a little creepy, and with just a hint of a whispery quality to it...and yet, it was utterly familiar, in some eerie way.

"He sounds like --" he began...but then just could not place the voice.

"I know that voice," Adrian said, nodding and looking thoughtful.

Kippy's eyes were bright. "Can you say something else?" he directed at the overhead.

"I am still learning the intricacies of your language. Max has helped me to understand."

"You're doing very well," Charlie answered, amazed. Learning an entire language in so short a time was something that only a machine could do.

Kippy laughed. "I know! I know!" He looked at the ceiling again. "Can you repeat something for me, just the way I do it?"

"I would be happy to do so."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, then let his eyes go back to the overhead. "Okay, listen to me, and then repeat what I say." Charlie grinned at the excitement in his boyfriend's face. Kippy was onto something, of that Charlie was certain.

Kippy cleared his throat, and began to sing: "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel..."

Charlie gaped again, suddenly recognizing the voice that the Moth shipmind sounded like. Of course!

Kippy stopped after a couple of lines, and nodded at the overhead. "Now, you do it."

Murcha began to sing, mimicking exactly Kippy's inflection, and Charlie grinned, and Adrian and Ricky both started cheering. The shipmind sounded like the singing voice from the old cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut. You couldn't find a more Halloweeny voice than that!

Kippy sighed. "I love that cartoon. I knew I knew the voice."

Murcha reached the end of the lines that Kippy had offered, and stopped. "Was that acceptable?"

"That was great!" Kippy returned. "We love the sound of your voice, Murcha."

"I can change it's tone, if you wish."

"No!" Kippy looked aghast. "It's wonderful just like it is!"

Max grinned at them across the globe, which now displayed starlit space around them. "Something special about that voice?"

"I'll fill you in sometime, Max," Charlie promised. "It's a Christmas thing. I think you'll like it."

Max nodded, but looked about the room then. Charlie's eyes followed after him, wondering what had drawn the elf's attention. But he no sooner wondered, when he understood.

Every since leaving Earth, there had been a subtle background noise within the room, the sounds of powerful machines of some type operating beneath the deck under their feet. What had drawn Max's attention was a sudden quieting of those sounds.

Max gave a small frown. "What's up, Murcha?"

"We have completed an in-system jump, and have reached the heliopause, Max. To proceed, I will need a destination."

"What's that?" Ricky asked.

Charlie knew, from his reading. "It's the point where the sun's solar wind is countered by the inward pressure of the hydrogen and helium between the stars. It's pretty much the edge of the solar system."

Ricky licked his lips. "Long way from home?"

Charlie nodded. "Very. We're at the edge of interstellar space."

Max nodded. "Murcha says they usually go into that Cooee place and stay there long before they ever reach this far out. But, uh, because I ain't sure where to go, I just told him to cruise until we figured it out. So he made a short jump to the edge of our system...and now we have to tell him where we want to go."

Charlie gave a little gasp at that. Where to go? They hadn't even considered that! "Wow. I just didn't...I don't even know how to find Pacha, Max. I know the name of his planet, but that's all."

"Planetary records were shared with the Arpathant," Murcha informed them. "If you give me the name of a world, I can take us there."

Charlie let his gaze drift across the sphere to touch Max's. Giving the name of the Kifta world to Murcha could be the same as giving it to the Moth. Was it safe?

Max watched him, and seemed to divine his thoughts. He nodded, and smiled.

Charlie sighed. "We need to go to Kift."

"One moment...found."

The subtle machine noises changed in tone again, and the sphere before them suddenly turned an inky black, devoid of any image at all. The darkness of the Cooee was now all around them, and time as they knew it suspended until they reached their destination.

"Ooh," Frit breathed softy, closing his eyes. "Feel that!"

Pip made a different small sound, and nodded. "It's soft!"

Max also closed his eyes. "Aw, wow."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances, and then turned to look again at the three elves. They all had their eyes closed, and smiles on their faces, and seemed lost in some blissful experience. The boys remained quiet, smiling at each other now and then, and exchanging silent conversation by looks and gestures.

What are they doing?

Heck if I know! But they seem to be enjoying it!

Should we say something?

No, let's wait!

Finally, Max sighed and opened his eyes. "Amazing."

Charlie nodded. "We could see something special was going on."

"Yeah. Geez, this Cooee place is just incredible, guys. It lays on you like soft velvet, but it's wide open, and your mind can go out to see the ends of the universe. And right away, no time lag, no nothin'. I've never felt anything like it."

Frit opened his eyes, and sighed. "Wonderful."

Pip opened his eyes, and smiled at Frit. "Going with you was fun!"

The two elves exchanged fond looks, and Charlie smiled. "So we're all back now?"

Max nodded, but then frowned. "I can see home...Earth, I mean, but I can't quite tell where it is. It feels like it's right in front of me, but it also feels like it's really far away."

Charlie nodded, recalling his conversations with Pacha and Mike on the nature of the Cooee. "It seems to be everywhere and nowhere, all rolled into one. I think Mike said it was as close to everything and also as far away from it as you could get, and both at the same time. But as a way to travel from one star to another, it was the only way to go."

Max nodded. "There's things in here with us, Charlie. I can sense other ships - just thousands and thousands of them - and forms of life, and even a few worlds in here. They're all far away and right next to us, at the same time."

Charlie frowned at that. "Really? You sense more than one world in here?" He looked at Kippy. "We know that Engris is in the Cooee, but I thought that was the only one."

"There's more than one," Max insisted. He frowned again. "And one of them seems to be aware of us. someone looking our way, from across an ocean, or right beside me." He gave his head a small shake. "Almost like it was looking for us."

Charlie gave a little shrug, completely puzzled by what Max was telling them. "I just don't know what that means."

Max smiled. "I think we're gonna find out." He sighed, obviously shifting his attention to the sphere before them. "Anything to eat around here, Murcha?"

The voice of the ship gave a small laugh, and Charlie's hair stood on end. It was wonderfully creepy, like the laugh you'd expect to hear in a dark old haunted house, or at the doorway to some bizarre and awful hell.

"I have analyzed your chemistry, and I can manufacture suitable foodstuffs. Your kind is similar in structure to others among the galactic peoples."

"How about a bathroom?" Adrian asked, grinning. "I'm sure other galactic people have to pee, too."

"There are facilities of the type you require here," Murcha announced. "Please follow the indicator. Thank you."

A tiny red sphere of light appeared near Adrian, danced playfully about him a couple of times, and then moved off towards an opening in the chamber wall. Then it danced back, like a playful puppy, trying to tempt Adrian into following.

Charlie smiled at the overhead. "We're friends now, okay? You don't have to be so polite."

"I was required to be submissive to my former masters. That will take some time to...correct."

Again came the creepy laugh. Charlie realized then that it seemed almost like some sort of nervous reaction on the part of the shipmind, and it was a startling pause for thought. Could machines get nervous? Could they feel fright? The idea was unsettling. And he had still been thinking of Murcha as a machine, a kind of super-duper computer. But Max said that Murcha was alive, a genuine mind, just like that which any other person possessed.

Making that adjustment to his thinking was not all that hard. Charlie considered now that the shipmind was another person, absent from the room, but listening in, able to see, and able to experience life just as he did. That meant that everything that went along with that life must be the same for Murcha as it was for Charlie. Well, more or less..

He tried to imagine what it would be like to be chained to a duty by a master that owned you, and thought of you as just another component in a greater machine. And then to suddenly be released from that duty, from the state of being owned, and to become free, and a master yourself - of your own life. It would be an incredible change for a human, of that he had no doubt. Could it be the same way for a smart machine?

He nodded. "Just relax, Murcha. We are indebted to you for your assistance. And we appreciate your friendship." He straightened away from the pylon. "And I think I need to take a pee, too."

Kippy also stepped forward. "I could use a pee break, I think."

Ricky laughed, and pushed himself away from his pylon, just as Adrian did. "I wouldn't miss this for the world," Ricky said, grinning at Adrian. "I'm dying to see what kind of a toilet the Moth use."

Adrian reached out and gave his boyfriend a fond push, and the four boys moved to follow the bouncing red ball of light. They were taken through an archway to a short hallway, off which several other archways opened. The Moth, apparently, were not shy folk, and did not believe in doors except where absolutely necessary. The restroom, when they found it, was enlightening. And completely lacking in privacy.

They inspected the fixtures within, and Charlie could only sigh. This was definitely going to be an interesting trip. Apparently, flying through space was not the only thing the Moth did standing up.

"That was...different," Kippy said, finishing his meal.

Their food had arrived via a piece of equipment that Charlie thought would have made a wonderful Mars rover, a large conveyance on six padded wheels, and replete with arms and eye lenses and all sorts of fascinating tools and doodads, that whipped up their meal and cooked it on the spot. The ingredients were apparently mostly molecules, combined and heated and flavored right before their eyes, and the result laid out on a square plate which was handed to each of them by a surprisingly mobile mechanical arm. The Moth apparently ate standing up, too, as there was nothing like a table in the ship's central chamber, and Max had to call one up, complete with white linen tablecloth and seven comfortably padded chairs.

"Not bad, though," Max said, settling back in his chair and patting his belly. "Wonder if I can get the recipe for the missus?"

Charlie grinned at that. What had arrived on his plate had resembled an omelet, even down to the hints of red peppers and onions, and was quite tasty. The only thing that had thrown him a little was that the egg part was a light blue. He had asked Murcha about that, and received a less-than-surprising answer. The Moth apparently did not consider the presentation of their meals - the look of them - very important, viewing it as sustenance only, and not something to be visually appreciated before eating. Max also had to create some forks for them, as the Moth apparently ate with their fingers, probably a more natural procedure for a species with seven of them.

But it was just one more odd aspect of the aliens to absorb, and Charlie was quickly learning that, the more he came to know of the Moth, the less he liked them. Their reputation as a people not to be messed with seem justifiably earned. Their technology was just a little better than that of many other races, and their willingness to use it to further their own aims already legendary. Combined with the power magic that they were able to use, they presented a frightening package to races of a gentler and kinder nature, and those unfortunates that lived within Moth space did so always careful not to get in the way of the masters.

From what Murcha had told them, the Moth were a strange breed of conquerors. They required an oath of allegiance from the races they dominated, and then pretty much left them alone to their own lives as long as they didn't need something from them. The Moth were not a prolific species, and their numbers were surprisingly low for a race that had been around for as long as they had. There were more humans in China, apparently, than there were Moth in all of their stellar empire. But their space was vast, and the number of habitable planets within it quite large, and while they were spread rather thin when it came down to it, that was apparently just the way they liked it.

Murcha was a fountain of knowledge about the Moth, and seemed anxious to talk about them, now that his security restrictions had been removed. That the shipmind had been mostly alone with his thoughts for his entire lifespan seemed plain, for his old masters were not interested in what went on within their servant's minds, so long as they performed their duties quickly and well. Murcha's desire to be helpful to his new friends was almost sad in its undercurrent need to please, yet Charlie and the others found it fascinating just to sit and listen to that formidable voice speak of the Moth. What they were learning was important, and what the ability to talk to others and exchange ideas and knowledge companionably was doing for Murcha, seemed pretty plain. As the hours passed in conversation, the shipmind grew more relaxed, and the occasional laughter - while still wonderfully creepy in dimension - seemed born of genuine amusement now, rather than from the ache of unsettled electronic nerves.

Moth society was not of the gregarious sort, Murcha told them, and only the very adventurous youth among them got together long enough to ply the spaceways in trade and exploration. The majority of the population tended to retreat to large fortress-homes that were very careful not to be too close to each other, with the size of these structures and the amount of land around them a signature of the wealth of the householder. Surprisingly, for all their technology, the Moth seemed to have a weird retro bent of some kind, that had them hiding that technology behind walls of stone and iron and other primitive materials in their homes.

There was a clear hierarchy among the Moth, with even those at the bottom being quite wealthy and influential by galactic standards. It was the sons and daughters of these households that comprised the active crews of the Moth spacefleet, contracting themselves out to ship owner's for a modicum of pay, but a more substantial share of the voyage profits. Different houses had different interests, and little was shared between them without some sort of profit motive involved.

There was almost a warlord mentality among the wealtiest aliens, and the great Moth spacefleet was actually not centrally run, but was in fact owned almost piecemeal by the more powerful and wealthy among the population, and worked together under a complex arrangement of treaties and monetary 'deals'. Profit was a strong motivation for cooperation, and while the Moth fleet was large by anyone's standards, it was also loyal to ten thousand different masters, and only came together in large numbers for very important shows of force.

The vessel they were passengers in, and the larger watermelon craft that Max had chased from earth orbit, belonged to one T'ath, a powerful warlord who dealt in information of all kinds, and bought and sold and traded it like any other commodity. It was one of T'ath's covert listening stations that had received and decoded Korig's message about Earth, and Max and Charlie and the others were delighted to learn that the knowledge of those events and their world had as yet gone no further. After the disappearance of the Arpies, T'ath had sent a ship to Earth to investigate, to see what possible knowledge - and therefore possible wealth - could come of it. When Max had chased off the alien's ship, it had returned to T'ath's home base to report, and Murcha said that, as yet, no information had gone out to the vessels of T'ath's personal fleet, which numbered in the hundreds of ships. That meant that the secret of Earth was still held by a relatively small few, if not by just T'ath himself.

It also meant that there was still a chance to head off any possible threat to Earth by simply dealing with the knowledge that T'ath had of them, by deleting it, or simply destroying it, so that no further attention could be paid to it. Star locations were laid out in complex three-dimensional mathematical diagrams, far too complicated for living beings to retain, and Max felt that if he could just find where the information was stored, he could remove it.

"T'ath is not the type to share information with others," Murcha told them. "The location of your world and the knowledge of the Arpathant message will be stored with him alone. The vessel that visited your planet will have had the knowledge removed until T'ath determines how to act next."

"But can't they just find it again?" Kippy asked. "The Moth that visited us said they just looked up Earth's location in some catalog they shared with the Arpathant."

"The knowledge of the name of your world, and it's catalog listing, must also be removed," Murcha returned. "That will require more work on your part, but it also can be done."

Max drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "How much do you know about Moth magic?"

"I understand the meaning of the word, but the supernatural element it implies does not apply. Moth power management skills are a science, although based in an area of thought that I do not understand."

Frit and Pip both laughed. "That's why it's magic to most people!" Frit offered.

"Murcha is right," Max said. "It is a science, and most people don't get it." He leaned back in his chair." I was just wonderin' if their ability to use it varies from one Moth to the next?"

"There is no record of that, Max. All Moth seem equal in their ability to use power management."

The elf grinned. "Great! That means none of them are better than a level fifteen. That gives me an advantage, then."

"However, because Moth do not trust each other, the field of physical technology that allows for the suppression of power management is considerable."

Frit took in a started breath. "Sounds bad!

"Uh oh!" Pip added.

Max grimaced. "Oh. Uh...what exactly does that mean?"

"It means that Moth holdings are generally protected by dampening fields, so that no Moth can use power management in the area. Otherwise their ability to spy upon each other would be considerable, and business advantages and investments difficult to protect."

Max scratched his head. "Are you telling me that these guys have some sort of thing that squashes magic, so that we can't use it?"


Max rubbed his cheek. "I'll have to see it to believe it."

"You will see it," Murcha said next. "You will need to go to the citadel at Challont, where T'ath has his headquarters, in order to locate and destroy the information regarding your world. Challont is heavily protected from power management."

Ricky shook his head. "How the heck are we gonna get there?"

"I will take you," Murcha said, though this time his volume was considerably reduced.

"The hell you will," Max said. "You go into Moth space, and they'll capture you and put you back where you were. You want to be a servant again?"

"I am willing to take the risk for my friends."

Charlie smiled at that. But of course they could not allow it. "We'll have to think of another way."

"No, we won't." Max smiled at him. "Just a feeling I have, Charlie. You'll see."

Charlie grinned at that. Max didn't say such things lightly. That meant he was onto something he was pretty sure of, and just not willing to share it yet.

"You're terrible, Max," Kippy said, just before Charlie could do it himself.

Charlie laughed. "Kip is right. aren't you going to tell us what you know?"

"And spoil all the fun? Not likely." The older elf yawned then. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm tired. We aren't going to be anywhere for a little no-time yet, so maybe we ought to get comfortable. What say we take a nap, huh?"

Charlie suddenly felt his own weariness. They had been awakened from sleep by the arrival of the Moth, and the night had still been young. Now that his attention was focused on it, the fact that he was tired himself was clear.

"I could go for a nice nap," Kippy agreed, getting up from the table and stretching. He looked up at the overhead, which by now they had come to equate with looking towards Murcha. "Is there anything like a bed around here?"

"I am not sure what you mean by that," the shipmind returned.

Charlie sighed, hoping that sleep was not another thing the alien Moth did while standing. But, it quickly turned out that that was pretty much the way of it. The Moth used the upright pylons for sleep, and while comfortable, it was not what Charlie wanted just now. He wanted to cuddle against Kippy, and just close his eyes and drowse away.

Max stood up, and waved his hands at everyone else. "You guys clear a spot, and I'll fix us right up."

Everyone stood and moved back from the table. Max waved it away, and then turned and inclined his head at the empty deck behind them. The air stirred, the shadows there flowed, and quickly formed into the shapes of beds - big doubles, four of them, arranged in an arc along the circular wall.

Kippy clasped his hands in front of himself, and smiled. "Max, you're a romantic!"

The older elf looked surprised. "Huh?"

Kippy walked over to him and laid a hand on Max's shoulder. "There are seven of us, and only four beds."

Max swallowed, and nodded. "Oh, uh...yeah. I just assumed...I mean...well...what's wrong with that?"

Kippy leaned in and kissed the elf's cheek, and Max visibly reddened in reaction.

"Nothing at all," Kippy added, quietly. He turned and looked at Charlie. "We got dibs on endies!"

Charlie grinned as Kippy danced forward and threw himself into the bed on the left end of the arc.

"Take your shoes off, at least!" Charlie said, shaking his head. But he had to laugh, and went over to the bed and leaned over the end of it, untying his boyfriend's shoelaces and removing his shoes. He dropped them on the deck, and bent down to untie his own.

Ricky and Adrian claimed the bed next to them, and Frit and Pip the one next in line. Max took the bed on the other end of the arc, and sat on he edge of it, his back to them, as he pulled off his boots. "Uh, let's just sleep, okay? You guys can get comfortable, but let's not have any happy stuff going on, okay?"

Charlie and Kippy both laughed, and Ricky and Adrian grinned at Max's back. But it was Frit that looked at Pip and pouted, and then turned to his gramps and nodded. "We'll be good!"

That generated more laughter from the humans, to which Frit turned and gave a little, pleased bow. "Well, we will!"

"Won't like it much, though!" Pip added, grinning at Charlie and Kip.

Kippy rolled out of the bed to his feet, pulled the soft cover down, and then hopped back in. Charlie lifted the cover on his side, and settled himself beneath it. Kippy wiggled right over to him, wrapped his arms around him, kissed him, and then closed his eyes. "Night, Charlie."

Charlie sighed, and kissed him back, already warming comfortably at the touch of his boyfriend's body. "Night, Kip."

Charlie raised his head and looked over at Ricky and Adrian, who were also comfortably wrapped together. Adrian gave him a smile, and then kissed Ricky, ad their faces went together, tuning out everything else. Beyond them, Frit and Pip were curled into a single form beneath their cover, and already still.

Finally, there was Max, who was plumping his pillow, his eyes closed, a smile of anticipation on his face. Charlie smiled himself, and kissed Kippy one more time.

And then Max raised a hand and waved it, and the lights in the compartment went down.

"G'night, Murcha," Max said, softly. "Talk to you in a while."

"Good night...everyone," the wonderfully deep and mysterious voice returned.

And then Murcha gave out a soft, very creepy laugh, indeed.

Charlie just smiled this time. It was, after all, almost Halloween

Charlie opened his eyes, pulled from sleep by some change in the room. He blinked, and then immediately shielded his eyes with a hand, realizing that the lights were up again. He blinked some more, getting adjusted to the new illumination, then raised his head and looked around, and spied Max standing over by the globe in the center of the chamber.

Kippy mumbled something, sighed, and opened his eyes. "What's happening?"

"I don't know. Max is up." Charlie sighed. "I'll go and see."

He rolled away from Kippy and climbed out of bed, and stuck his feet into his shoes. Then he shuffled across the deck to where the older elf stood. Max heard him up, and turned to smile at him. "Hi. I think we just found that planet I was saying was looking at us."

Charlie blinked, and turned his eyes to the darkened globe. Just within was a dark circle, slightly lighter than the background of the Cooee - a circle that seemed to glow with some dark light of its own. Visible on the surface were the small glows of towns, lonely dots of brilliance amidst the great background of the planetary night.

"Engris!" Charlie leaned closer, to make sure. "It looks like the place, anyway." He turned to Max. "You say this is the planet you sensed before? That was somehow aware of us?"

"Yup." Max turned to look at the globe viewer again. "Very interesting place, Charlie. Old as blazes, and...somebody made it!"

Charlie laughed. "We did hear that. The people that built this place were trying to talk to the dead."

"I think they did, Charlie. This place is about as transdimensional as it gets. Even the Big Guy's house doesn't feel as strong as this!"

Charlie was aware of Kippy padding over in his socks to stand next to them. "Is that Engris? Why are we here?"

Max also looked at the viewer. "That place has positioned itself in front of us. Murcha stopped the ship and woke me up. He said that attempts to go around haven't worked. The planet just moves with us."

Charlie frowned at that. He remembered then that Pacha had said that people didn't find Engris, but that the planet found them. But only if you had peace in your heart. All of the major galactic powers had received the boot here, and none allowed to find the world again. They only wanted Engris for what power it might give to them, and the ancient world was apparently not having any of that.

But...they had not been seeking Engris. Why was it now in front of them? Unless...

By now, the others were sitting up in their beds, and asking what was going on. Charlie turned to Max, and pointed at the viewing sphere. "Can that thing zoom in?"

Max looked up at the overhead. "What about it, Murcha?"

"The image may be refined to any degree you wish. What, specifically, are we looking for?"

Charlie looked back at the globe. "There is only one little city on Engris that has a spaceport. You can't land anywhere else." He also looked up at the overhead. "Can you find that city, and zoom in on it?"

"I think so. The presence of starships will give it a unique power signature...there. I have it."

Charlie turned back to the viewer. The surface of Engris leaped closer, and one point of light resolved into a circular town with a brightly-lit central area, and a smooth ring of pavement about it, on which rested several dozen ships of varying design. But Charlie's eyes immediately found one particular vessel - a blue globe, like a huge soap bubble.

"I think I see. That's a Kifta ship, Max." He turned to smile at the elf. "We were heading to Kift to look for Pacha and Mike. Engris is apparently telling us that they're here, instead."

By now the others had come from their beds to circle around and stare at the viewer.

"Ooh, that place again!" Adrian said, grinning. "You think Pacha and Mike are here?"

The last was directed at Charlie. "Seems a good guess," he said. "That's definitely a Kifta ship. It doesn't have to be Pacha's ship...but at least we should go and see."

"Will Engris let this ship land?" Ricky asked. "It's kicked the Moth out of here once before."

Max frowned in thought at that. "It evidently ain't the ship, but who is aboard her, that matters. I sense only a welcome from this place." He waved a hand at the viewer. "Murcha? Can you take us in? Land as close to the blue bubble ship as you can, okay?"

The town shown on the screen immediately backed away from them, became a point of light, and then began to swell all over again. This time, as it became visible as a town again, Charlie knew it was because they were right above it, coming in to land. There was ample free space next to the Kifta bubble ship, and Murcha eased their own ship down only a stone's throw away from the blue hull. There was a faint bump as the ship's stubby legs contacted the pavement, and then all feeling of motion ceased.

The sounds of powerful machinery beneath their feet stilled, and the ship settled into quiet so quickly that it was startling.

Charlie grinned. "Whoa. Talk about hearing a pin drop. I didn't realize how used I was to hearing the engines going, until they stopped."

The viewer now showed an image of the port outside, illuminated by large lights on poles at the inside of the ring, and by the lights of the city itself. The outer buildings, while lit, gave the impression of being empty. No one moved in the streets, nor behind the windows, and once again Charlie was impressed by how deserted the city looked. He knew it was because the people that lived here spent much of their time at the great market within the center ring of the city, where merchandise from all over known space was bought and sold, bartered and traded, some of it legitimate, and some of it on the hazy side of legal.

Many items were simply stolen, or looted from dead worlds, or even from transports in space. Even so, it took a particular type of pirate to be allowed to trade at Engris. The rules here were easy: respect everyone, harm no one. Those with darkness in their hearts could not find Engris, and those of a thieving nature that could land here were a strange breed of trader, indeed. Charlie and the other boys had each purchased an item on their last visit with Pacha and Mike, and several of them were of questionable origin. That fact had not seemed to bother Pacha, who apparently felt that if an item made it all the way to the market on Engris, the seller had a right to claim a fee for it. Engris itself was the best judge of those that traded here.

"Shall we go and knock on their door?" Kippy asked. He grinned. "Mike will be shocked to see us here."

"Maybe." Charlie smiled. "I wouldn't put much past Pacha. He may already know we're here."

"Only one way to find out," Ricky said, grabbing Adrian's arm and drawing him back to the beds to get their shoes. "Let's go and see!"

Kippy came and linked an arm with Charlie, and leaned against him. "What do you think?"

Charlie looked at the Kifta ship within the viewer, and shrugged. "It's either them, or it's not. Must be some reason why Engris wanted us to land here."

Kippy licked his lips, and looked at Charlie. "You remember what Will and Billy said to us? That they would see us again, the next time we were here? Maybe it's not Pacha's ship. Maybe it's Billy and Will that want to see us."

Charlie considered that. "We ought to at least go to the dead city and see if they come. Okay, well, that's two things to do." He looked up at the overhead, and then smiled, realizing that it was becoming a habit. "Um...Murcha?"

"Yes, Charlie?"

Charlie smiled. It was the first time the shipmind had called him by name. "Can you contact the ships around us? I mean, specifically, that blue bubble ship next to us?"

"Yes, Charlie. All vessels operated in a legal manner broadcast an identifying code. I simply query that identifier, and communication is established."

"Great. Can you call them, and ask if Pacha is there?"

"One established...oh!"

Charlie frowned. "Something wrong?"

", not at all. The shipmind there is quite energetic." The giant, slightly sinister laugh rolled over them, its volume seeming slightly heightened. "Oh...and quite friendly, too. I have never encountered another shipmind like this one. It's...completely free. And quite...quite...accommodating in nature."

Kippy laughed, and elbowed Charlie lightly in the ribs. "Love at first sight," he whispered.

"Shh!" But Charlie had to smile, anyway.

"The shipowner is not in at the moment. I am informed that the entire crew is in town. That vessel's mind has offered to establish contact for us, if we wish it."

Kippy gripped Charlie's arm, and leaned closer. "Aw...I wanted to surprise Mike."

Charlie rolled his eyes. "We don't even know if it's them yet!"

"It is. I feel it is."

"The shipowner is listed as the Kifta Ministry of Science and Falaspax, if that is any help," Murcha offered.

Kippy grunted. "What the heck is Falaspax?"

Charlie shook his head. "You got me." He waved a hand in the air. "Murcha, see what they say."

"One established."

"Ardwa? Nom pa de pesla?"

Charlie was unfamiliar with the language, but the voice was immediately recognizable. "Pacha? It's Charlie!"

There was a moment of silence, and then: "Charlie? Where are you?"

Charlie beamed. "At the port. It's wonderful to hear your voice again!"

"I, too, am delighted! How did you get here?"

"It's a long story, Pacha. Is Mike with you?"

"He is. He is over at a stand now, trying on some clothing. Shall I add him to our link?"

Kippy immediately elbowed Charlie, and Charlie laughed. "Um, Kippy wants to surprise him. Can we come and meet you at the market?"

"Kip is there, too? And Rick and Adrian?"

"All of us," Charlie answered. "And even a few more of our friends. Can we meet you?"

"Of course. You recall where the food service kiosk was located? How about there?"

Charlie remembered the place, that analyzed a patron's chemistry and provided food, right on the spot." Yes. I remember. It will take us about fifteen minutes to get there. We'll meet you, okay? And you won't tell Mike?"

The link carried a small chuckle to them. "I will not tell him. This will be fun!"

"Okay, Pacha. See you in a few minutes."

Murcha gave out another brief laugh. "Connection terminated."

Charlie winked at the overhead. "You're having fun, too, aren't you, Murcha?"

For a moment there was no response, and Charlie was wondering if he had somehow said the wrong thing, when the ship mind answered. "The Moth are not 'fun' people, Charlie. The things they enjoy are different than the things your people seem to enjoy. The Moth lack the sociable nature of your species. You humans enjoy each other's company. You enjoy making each other feel...more positive? I am still learning by observation, Charlie. But the differences in your two species are quite apparent to me."

Charlie shrugged. "You don't need to be human to have fun."

"No. But I was not designed with an appreciation for humor. But I am learning it rather quickly, it seems."

Kippy smiled. "Always room for one more at the party. Friends make each other feel happy, Murcha. Friends do things together because they want to, because they like each other. Because they share a way of seeing the world, and enjoying it. It's always more fun to do things together, than it is to be alone."

"I have always been alone, until now."

"Well, you're not alone now." Ricky said firmly, joining them. He and Adrian had put their shoes on, and were ready to go. "You have friends now."

"Lots of friends now!" Frit called, as he and Pip came up. Pip wiggled one foot, seating it more properly in his boot, and nodded. "Lots!"

"I have friends now," the shipmind repeated.

Kippy grinned. "You sure do. Get used to it!"

"I will try. Trying will be fun, I think."

"We should go," Max said, quietly. "Can you keep an eye on us while we're here, Murcha?"

"I can, Max. I will equip you all with communications links so that we can stay connected as you move about this very odd world."

Max smiled at that. "You also think this place is...different?"

"There are records of this world in my memory. The Moth sought it to learn its secrets, but were repulsed. That did not sit well with them, and there is an open command for any Moth vessel that lands here to signal its location to the shipowner. The Moth wish to plunder the technology of this place. I think I would consider that a true tragedy."

Max smiled. "That will never happen, Murcha. This place has some things going for it that none of these space-types can match. They'll never take this place, because they'll never understand its true nature. If they were able to do that, they would leave Engris alone to begin with."

"I understand, Max. Had you not freed me from my bonds of loyalty to the Moth, I would not have been allowed to land here at all, nor to even find this place. I am unable to betray Engris, because I now agree too fully with its purpose."

There was a small whirring sound, and a drawer extended from the base holding the central sphere. "Please take a communicator, each of you, and place them in one ear. We will be able to maintain contact in this manner, and the unit will provide translations to the many tongues spoken here."

Max's eyebrows went up. "You can hear folks talking here?"

The sinister laugh rolled out again. "There is much communicator traffic here. Person-to-person, person-to-ship, and ship-to-ship. In dozens of tongues. The communications are encrypted, but this vessel belonged to T'ath, who specializes in listening to other people's conversations and data streams. So I actually can hear more than I have any right to be hearing."

Max walked over to the central sphere, and looked into the drawer. "I'm pretty good at learning languages, but I think these will help speed that up." He reached into the drawer, took something tiny out, and placed it into his right ear. Then he looked over his shoulder at Charlie and the others. "Come over here, guys, and get one of these."

Charlie took Kippy by the arm and steered him towards the central sphere, and the others followed. Charlie looked down into the drawer, and smiled at the tiny black blobs piled there. "It must be nice to be able to build a complete computer into a licorice drop."

Kippy frowned. "Yuck. I hate stuff in my ear."

Charlie sighed. "Here. I'll put it in." He bent and retrieved a black blob, which felt very much like a licorice drop, after all, and carefully inserted it into Kippy's ear. The thing immediately turned into a liquid, sprouted a network of fine hairs that wove themselves together into what looked like a web designed by a deranged spider, attached itself to Kippy's ear, and drew the central body of the device into his ear canal. Then the black coloration faded, turned lighter, and in a moment had precisely matched the coloration of Kippy's skin. Charlie blinked at it, squinted, and could just barely see the thing, there inside Kippy's ear.

Kippy smiled. "That tickled."

Charlie nodded. "I would think." He reached into the drawer, took out another communicator, and placed it into his own ear. There was a brief sensation like a dozen gnats square dancing on his earlobe, and then he felt nothing at all.

"That, is awesome," Ricky said, peering more closely at Charlie's ear. "This space tech is amazing stuff."

Charlie and Kip watched as their friends placed the communicators into their ears, and then Frit and Pip, who smiled at the sensation.

"Ooh!" Frit said, grinning at Pip. "Imagine that ---"

"Yeah!" Pip responded, giving his crotch a brief pat.

Charlie and the others laughed, while Max just sighed patiently. "Come on, fellas. We told your buddy, Pacha, we'd be there in fifteen minutes."

"I will be available, if you need me," Murcha said.

They descended to the pavement outside by stepping into the extruded boarding tube and allowing it to gently deposit them at the base. Once all of them were outside, the tube pulled up, became a large blister on the side of the hull, and then gently flattened itself back into the surrounding steel.

Charlie looked about them, took a deep breath of the warm, fresh air, and sighed. There was something very peaceful about the place, a complete lack of any sense of danger. The first time they had visited Engris they had all been keyed up by the experience of being in such a totally new, and totally alien place; but this time, a sense of pure relaxation descended upon Charlie immediately, and Kippy turned to him and hugged him. "It's almost like coming home," he whispered.

Charlie nodded. "I know what you mean."

Frit and Pip stared about with goggle eyes, and even Max seemed unusually interested.

"Wow," the older elf said, smiling at them. "This place has a great feel to it. I can see why people wanna come live here. It's almost like being in the toy shop at the Big Guy's place."

Charlie laughed. "I might retire here myself, one day."

They formed a loose group, and proceeded down one of the spoke avenues that led to the center of town. The closer they got to city center and the market, the more people they began to see. People of many races: large, small, bipedal, quadrupedal, and every variation between and beyond, all moving about calmly, freely, talking, examining wares, and some even issuing forth sounds of laughter. The businesses they passed had patrons inside, and people stood or sat on the three-tiered balconies of what were likely dwellings above. They could hear music as they passed some buildings, and more people were in the streets, until they finally reached the edge of the market, where true crowds began to appear.

"Wow," Frit breathed, staring about in wonder.

"Yeah!" Pip agreed, his eyes trying to be everywhere at once. "Look at 'em all!"

"You two behave," Max said, moving to stand between the boys, and clapping each elf on the shoulder. "Remember, we have to show that people from Earth's got manners, too. Right?"

Frit and Pip both nodded. "We'll be good!" Pip said.

"We won't touch anything!" Frit added.

"You can look at stuff, but always ask the proprietor," Charlie said. "They have a credit system here. You just agree that you want something, and the seller lets you take it. Somehow, they keep track of it all, and you get the bill when your ship is ready to leave." He frowned. "Pacha paid for the stuff we got here last time. I don't know how we would pay for stuff this time around."

"I have trade items aboard," Murcha said into his ear. "We can pay for items you purchase." Charlie wasn't expecting it, and jumped. Kippy and the others must have heard, too, as everyone seemed to start except for Max.

"Even so," the older elf said, turning to pin his eyes on Frit and Pip, "we ain't takin' this whole place back with us, so you two be reasonable, you hear?"

Frit and Pip placed expressions of pure innocence upon their faces. "We hear!" Frit said, and Pip nodded.

Charlie grinned at Max, who was eying the two younger elf's expressions with a wary one of his own. Max gave his head a brief shake, and looked briefly into the dark sky overhead. "I sure hope this wasn't a mistake!"

"The food place was over this way," Kippy said, smiling and taking Charlie's arm. He led them around and through the moving masses of people, and slowed as the food stand came into sight. They stopped on this side of a crowd of short folk with what looked like feathers on their bodies beneath the flowing capes they wore, but with faces that somewhat resembled those of Earthly cats. Their ears were too long, their muzzles a little shorter, but the resemblance was worth a smile, especially as the group was happily chatting away in a tongue composed of grunts, growls, and long, expressive purrs.

Charlie tilted his head back and gazed over their heads, looking at the food kiosk. There were a number of people there, and Charlie's eyes examined them, moving among the figures, looking for two particular, familiar shapes...there. Off to one side, Pacha sat atop a table, still wearing his Koala form, while a flamboyantly dressed biped stood nearby, moving his arms about as if in conversation. The biped's back was to Charlie, but something about the way the figure moved was...familiar.

Charlie laughed. "I see Pacha. And... I think I see Mike, too." He pointed, and everyone turned to look.

Kippy gave a little gasp. "That can't be Mike, dressed in that clown suit, can it?"

Ricky squeezed his eyes shut, and tilted his head back and grinned, while Adrian laughed, and snuggled against him. "Oh, this is going to be a hoot!"

Charlie examined the clothing the distant figure was wearing, shaking his head a little as he took it all in. The...person...was wearing skin-tight beige pants with red piping down the outside of each leg, tucked into black boots with a simply killer shine on them. Upstairs, he was encased in a matching beige jacket, also with red piping along the outer sleeves, which rose to the shoulders and disappeared beneath maroon epaulets of heroic proportions. The figure's hands were clad in metal gauntlets that came to mid arm and ended in chain-mail cuffs. On his head he wore a white helmet, that had so many projections, knobs, and antennae upon it that it made him look like some form of alien moose. A huge holster was belted to his right hip, from which the butt of an incredibly large pistol protruded. Blaster, was the term that immediately came to Charlie's mind.

Kippy gave a soft little squeal of delight, grabbed Charlie's arm, and began pulling him across the pavement. The others fell in behind, and Charlie could hear Ricky and Adrian whispering and laughing together.

They managed to cross without the flashily-dressed biped turning and seeing them, and came up behind him as quietly as they could. Pacha's eyes watched them come, without seeming to at all. As they neared, they could hear a voice speaking, and the Aussie twang it held plainly belonged to Mike.

"...when I was a kid, Pach. I used to watch the show on TV. The guy flew all over space, saving the universe, and when I was nine, I wanted to be just like him."

Pacha nodded, seemingly seriously. "I think you have caught the look of a galaxy buster, at the least, Mike."

Kippy glanced at Charlie, his eyes bright with anticipation; and then he reached out a hand and gently laid it atop the giant maroon epaulet on Mike's right shoulder. "Commander Comet, I presume? I have a daring mission for you, sir, if you are willing to take it."

Mike flinched at the touch, his shoulders rising up; and then he froze at the sound of Kippy's voice. And then he slowly turned around. It was all that Charlie could do not to howl when he saw the front of the helmet: a small arm held an amber lens with crosshairs embedded in it over Mike's right eye, and another arm came from the other side and held what looked an acorn with tiny holes in it before Mike's mouth.

Ricky and Adrian broke up into laughter, unable to believe what they were seeing. Charlie's own face was bent all out of shape as he struggled hard not to join them.

Slowly, Mike's eyes examined Kippy, and then Charlie, and then moved beyond them.

And then Mike whooped, and surged forwards and grabbed Kippy into a hug, picked him up off his feet, and spun them both around in a circle. Kippy tilted his head back and laughed in absolute delight, and gave a little sigh as Mike set him back on his feet. "Yes, I'll marry you," Kippy said, smiling sweetly.

Mike squeezed his eyes shut; and then he was grabbing up Charlie into a hug, and then proceeded to bestow one on Ricky and Adrian, each.

He stopped then, as if suddenly becoming aware of Max and Frit and Pip, and stepped back in front of Charlie and Kip.

"Uh, these with you?" he whispered.

Charlie nodded, getting control of his face. "Yes. Mike, these are our friends - Max, the tall one, and Frit and Pip, the two really cute ones."

Max raised a hand and waved. "Hiya."

Frit gave out a little sigh. "He's dreamy!"

Pip batted his eyes and nodded. "Even in that zoot suit!"

Mike reddened, and leaned closer to Charlie. "Uh...are they...?"

Charlie nodded. "Bother you?"

Mike tilted his head back and laughed. "Holy Dooley!" But then he sobered, and stared at them. "How the hell did you fellas get here?"

"In a minute," Charlie promised. He turned then, and went over to the table. Pacha watched him come, his little Koala face set in as close to a smile as he could manage. Charlie carefully bent and gave the small, furry shape a hug, and then moved out of the way so that Kippy could offer one. And then Ricky and Adrian had their turn, and then Charlie was introducing Max and the elf boys to the Kifta.

Pacha immediately got to his feet, and stared at Max. "You ring!"

Max nodded. "So do you."

They gazed at each other a moment, and then Pacha was looking at Mike. "You did not tell me that there were those of your kind that could use Ka."

Mike simply gaped. "What?" He stared at Max. "You mean him? He's a wizard-guy, like you are?"

"And the two younger ones," Pacha returned, indicating Frit and Pip. "Although to a much lesser degree."

"They're still learning," Max said, grinning.

"But not you." Pacha closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "You smell wonderful!."

Max nodded. "You, too."

Charlie looked back and forth between the two. "You can smell each other's, uh...power?"

"Yes." Pacha moved to the edge of the table. "Smell it, taste it, and see it. It's very strong in this one."

Max grinned. "My daddy always said I was a good student."

Pacha looked fascinated. "Can you...?"

"Yes," Max said, smiling. "Can you...?"

"Of course," Pacha returned. "But not as well as I can..."

Max nodded, his eyes crinkling in a smile. "I know that one, too."

Charlie laughed, and then held up his hands for attention. "Hey! Can we be included in this conversation?"

Max grinned, and Pacha gave out a contrite grunt. "Apologies, Charlie. It is completely unexpected to find Ka among your kind!"

Charlie licked his lips. "Well...they aren't exactly our kind." He smiled at Max. "Um, more like a companion race."

"They're elves," Kippy said, grinning at Mike.

Mike's jaw dropped so fast that the amber lens before his one eye flipped back and retreated into the side of the helmet. "Elves!"

Charlie sighed. "It's a long story."

"We have time, it appears," Pacha said, waving at the darkness overhead. Charlie smiled, understanding that the little koala meant that they could talk forever here, and never age a single second.

Kippy pointed at the food kiosk. "I'm hungry. Let's get some stuff, and have a seat, huh?" He smiled at Max. "We can all talk while we eat."

Max patted his belly, and grinned. "Now you're talkin' my language!"

"Well, I'll be stuffed!" Mike said, after the boys finished telling their tale of adventure. "The Moth, huh? That is not good, mates."

"No," Pacha agreed. "The Moth have issues with possession when it comes to most things. If they desire something, they seem willing to contest ownership until they acquire it, one way or another."

"They want the secret of how we got rid of the Arpies," Kippy said. "We weren't willing to tell them that your people were involved."

Pacha gave a little shake of his head. "That was noble of you, but perhaps not realistic. My kind are much better able to defend themselves from the Moth than are yours."

"So what do we have to do?" Mike asked. That he was volunteering his services was plain. Charlie smiled. He would have been surprised if it had been any other way.

"We have to go to a planet called Mufa'alatra. There's a Moth guy named T'ath there, who knows about Earth, and thinks we had something to do with the disappearance of the Arpies. Our friend, Murcha, told us that if we destroy the information there, that would be it. These Moth guys already don't like to share their secrets with each other, and T'ath is an information broker, and even less likely to have sent the info elsewhere."

"I have never heard of this world," Pacha said. "Very few of my people have ever been to Moth space." He looked more closely at Charlie. "How did you come by this information? Who is this Murcha?"

Ricky laughed. "He's the mind that runs our spaceship."

Mike looked skeptical. "You guys have your own ship?"

Charlie waved a hand at Max, and the elf described how he had taken the Moth ship, and how he had released the bonds that held the operating shipmind so that it could make its own decision to help them. Mike looked astounded, and even Pacha seemed impressed.

"So now you're goin' to this planet to try to destroy the data about Earth." Mike summed up. He turned and looked at Pacha. "I'm going along to help them, Pach."

The Kifta nodded. "I will also assist." He turned to Max. "We will take your ship. A surenka will be less noticeable among others of its kind."

Mike grinned, held his hands out about ten inches apart, and smiled at the boys. "Little furry creature on Kift, bright pink, stands out like a sore thumb."

Kippy sighed, leaned forward on the tabletop, and smiled at Mike. "So, now that we're all doing this...are you going to tell us the story on your super-duper spacesuit?"

Mike reddened, and looked down at himself. "Oh, won't laugh?"

Kippy grinned wolfishly. "I didn't say that."

Charlie laughed, and leaned up against his boyfriend. "We are kinda curious, Mike."

Mike rolled his eyes, placed an elbow on the table, and sat his chin in his hand. "When I was just a kiddo, there used to be a show on the telly that had a bloke on it called Johnny Asteroid. He would zip all over space, zapping the bad guys, making things right." Mike smiled. "I kinda wanted to be Johnny Asteroid."

"I think you're there," Adrian said, grinning.

Mike scratched his cheek, and nodded. "There's a place here that will make you any kinda clothing you want, measure you for fit, and make it on the spot. When I saw that, the idea of this suit came to mind. I told 'em what I wanted, and here we are."

Kippy reached across the table and rubbed Mike's arm. "You look handsome and sweet, even in Johny Asteroid's long underwear."

Mike laughed. "No one around here knows what it means, guys. You should see the crazy way some of these aliens dress. I figured I could get away with it, you know? No one even noticed me until you blokes came along."

Kippy nodded. "I think you should change for our mission, though. We're trying to sneak into Moth space, not wave a flag at them." He nodded, placing a totally serious look on his face. "When we get back to the ship, I'll help you change into something more comfortable."

Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Charlie laid a hand on his boyfriend's arm. "Nice try, Kip."

Kippy turned and blinked his eyes innocently. "What? He may have a stuck zipper on that thing, or something."

"I'm big enough to change on my own," Mike said patiently, through a smile.

Kippy smiled back, his eyes twinkling. "I'll just bet you are."

Frit and Pip burst into laughter and pounded the tabletop, and Max rolled his eyes. "Aw, geez!"

Mike sighed, but his smile never wavered. "You haven't changed a bit, Kip."

"Would you want me to?"

"Nah. I'd miss that devilish smile."

Kippy sighed, and turned to Charlie. "Kiss me?"

Charlie laughed, but did as he was asked, leaning over and depositing a kiss to Kippy's cheek. Kippy immediately turned back to Mike and stuck his tongue out at him. "See what you're missing?"

Max stood, and pushed his stool in under the table. "Well, I'm full. I'll say one thing, for a machine, that thing sure can cook!" He grimaced, and made a not-too subtle motion at Frit and Pip to get up.

Pacha, seated atop the end of the table, offered a pleasant little chik-chik-chik in the way of laughter. "We should be going."

"Oh!" Kippy stood then, too, and turned to Charlie. "We want to go to the dead city and see if we can talk to Billy and Will."

Charlie nodded, and looked over at Pacha. "Can we get that guy to take us there again? Um...Sefton?"

"I would think we could get him. Tourism here is confined mostly to new visitors, and his guide business is not exactly the primary consumer of his time."

Charlie smiled at that, remembering the big, friendly Molokar from their last trip. "Then that should be where we go next."

The brief walk across town was interesting, as always. The number of different races that lived on Engris, or that frequented the port there, was large, and they got to see peoples they otherwise would have never had the opportunity to encounter. Pacha patiently explained each race without being obvious that he was doing so, listing their homeworlds, and about where they could be found, and describing their natures and customs and approximate technological level. All had star travel, of course, which placed them above the human race in technological achievement; yet some of them also seemed to be so culturally different from humans that the boys were simply amazed by what they heard. Technological proficiency was apparently not an indicator of a peaceful nature, either, and some of the tales that Pacha related were less than encouraging in the area of friendliness.

Pacha also said that the Arpathant had kept the more violence-prone species within their realm in check, and without that empire to police things, some were already fighting among themselves, or with others. It was one drawback to having rid themselves of a less than beneficent overseer: now there were no cops patrolling the beat, and some of the wilder gangs were once again traveling the streets, unchallenged.

"My people have sworn to aid yours should your world be found again by hostiles," Pacha explained. "It is the debt we owe Mike for having aided us in freeing our own people." He gave Mike an almost-smile, and Charlie could almost see the wink in the little koala's eye. "Not that we would not aid you, anyway. Yours are a likeable people, and we actually have much in common."

"Oh, we have our bullies, too," Kippy said rolling his eyes. "You'd have to spend some time in one of our high schools to see what I mean."

Pacha gave out another laughing chik-chik-chik . "The young of all species can be rambunctious. It is only when they mature and remain that way that they need to be reined in."

"Good luck with that," Kippy replied. "Most of them wind up running things, and just pretending to be nice to everyone else."

Charlie gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "Now, now."

Pacha looked over at Max, and nodded. "It is a great relief to know that there are power users among you with a respectable level of proficiency. I will worry much less about your people and their safety now that I am aware of this."

Max grinned. "We've been watching out for these guys for a long time. Even during the worst of their conflicts with each other, the spirit of Christmas has not been allowed to be forgotten."

Charlie grinned at that. "We're doing Halloween just now, remember?"

"Only a couple of months, though," Max returned, with a wink. "We'll see what happens then."

Kippy laughed, and snuggled a little closer within Charlie's arm as they walked along. By the time they reached Sefton's building, Charlie had counted thirty-one different alien races, and thirty-one completely different histories. That this was just the tip of the iceberg seemed apparent now. The galaxy - even their small part of it - was a wild place, indeed.

They finally came to a building with a large door on the front that looked to be the roll-up type, that suggested a garage. A sign beside the smaller - but still large - entry, showed a stylized saucer-like vehicle with a bunch of different kinds of heads popped up above the rim, flying just above some trees, with some weird-looking towers and domes in the background. Underneath the illustration were several large words lettered in a blocky alien script. Charlie didn't have to read the sign to imagine what it said: Tours-R-Us. See the Ancient Cities!

The proprietor, one Sefton, was a Molokar like the one that had sold Ricky the dagger. Just under eight feet tall, and with startlingly pinkish skin, the man dressed in relaxed-looking clothing of a totally alien design, but which still managed to convey a sense of safari to the boys. He wore a floppy brimmed hat on his head that struggled to cover his long ears, and which would have looked surprisingly at home on one of Mike's Aussie neighbors. Sefton ably looked the part of a heroic adventurer, and even a friendly one. But his size also spoke of the misfortune that might come to one, were he to be unfairly crossed.

His personality was outgoing and friendly. When they entered the building and he spied them, he immediately offered the strange, gentle, smile-grimace, that seemed a characteristic of his species, and pounded a large hand down atop the table by which he was seated. "Pacha'Ka! Mike! And Charlee and Kippee!" Sefton pushed the table away from himself as much as pushing the chair back from beside it, and sprang to his feet. "And Adreean, and Reeky!" The man stepped forward and laid a hand against his chest and gave a small bow over it. "You honor me with another visit!"

Charlie and the others placed their hands on their chests and returned the little bow, and introduced Max and Frit and Pip as fellow travelers. Sefton seemed pleased to meet them all, and Max was very pleasant in return. Frit and Pip stared at the Molkar a little owlishly, impressed by his size, and were slow to warm to him; but Sefton was a man used to dealing with people of all kinds, and soon he had the elf boys smiling and laughing the same as everyone else.

"So why you here, all? Another trip to city of dead, perhaps? Hope to solve many mysteries of ancient people who built Engris, perhaps?"

Kippy sighed, and Charlie grinned. Sefton definitely knew his trade.

"We'd like to go back to the city we visited before," Charlie said. "Can you take us now?"

Sefton looked up at the wall, which displayed a square-framed device with greenish glowing characters in it. "Oh, is middle of night! Well, I no could sleep, anyway! Be glad to fly you out!"

Pach'Ka nodded, as if he would have been surprised at any other result. "I'll add in a little bonus because it's so late."

Charlie grinned at that. Day and night on Engris were the sole properties of the races that stayed there, and Pacha had told them once before that it could be virtually guaranteed that one man's timepiece bore no relation to another's. People on Engris lived on the time they had brought with them; ship time, or the local time of the world they had come from. The market was always in operation, with those that shared similar time frames getting to know one another, and those that lived on the other side of the dial often dealing with completely different proprietors of the very same stands. Most business, therefore, were run by a minimum of two people; but so far, on every occasion that Pacha had come to Sefton's, the big man himself was always available. Molokars, it seemed, required very little sleep to get along.

Sefton extended his arms, as if to herd them towards the garage, and Charlie and the others turned about. Kippy took the lead, and steered their group down the short hallway to the large berth where Sefton's equivalent of a safari jeep was kept.

This was 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 weather on Engris - the atmosphere was regulated, uniform, and completely unchanging, for the most part. Charlie had gathered that there was some sort of protection that could be enabled if those within the craft needed shielding, but he had yet to see it, and felt it out of place to ask for a demonstration. Engris was safe, in every respect, and to suggest otherwise was to ignore the spirit by which the world operated.

They climbed aboard through a section of the circular hull that slid aside to admit them, and then 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.

They reached them, 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 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.

Beyond the saucer's headlights, the jungle emitted a soft glow of its own, like one would see on a softly moonlit night back on earth. The odd light seemed to come from the trees, the sky, and the very air around them. If Sefton were to extinguish the vehicle's lights, they would still be able to see, the land about them revealed in a soft, almost ethereal glow. Charlie had theorized once that the builders of Engris might have been endowed with superb night vision, like a cat back home, and completely comfortable walking about on a world bathed in scarcely more than good starlight.

Pacha talked about what they were seeing, and where they were going, mostly for the benefit of the elves, who looked about with wonder, even Max. Charlie figured they had looked the same way on their first trip out, and seeing the same looks on the faces of their elf friends only proved once again that they were much more alike than they were different. The treetops appeared ahead of them in the beams of the headlights, and passed beneath them without change, and they covered what was certainly a dozen or more miles before Sefton slowed the craft and pointed ahead.

Dimly visible in the faint glow around them, they 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 great domes covered in mosaic patterns that teased the eye and caused them to blink and look again. Finally, a wide, open square appeared, and Sefton set the craft gently on the paving stones, and shut off the power plant. There was a momentary further rumble, and then 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, they could see, now that the saucer's lights had been extinguished. They could make out the towers and domes clearly, all around them. Nothing moved, nothing made a sound, and the feeling of abandonment seemed clear. No one had lived here in more years than the boys could imagine, older than old, the city long empty of life even before the pyramids were newly rising on the plains of Giza.

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. Max and the younger elves looked about them, their expressions subdued, the things they were feeling apparent in their eyes.

"Old," Frit breathed, almost in awe.

"Beautiful," Pip followed, in exactly the same voice.

Max looked over at Charlie, and smiled. "Wait until the boys back at the shop hear about this!"

Charlie laughed. "We felt exactly the same way our first time."

"Still do," Kippy said, giving a little sigh. "I sure would have liked to know the people that lived here. Seen what they were like, I mean."

"Yeah." Adrian gazed up at one of the long abandoned towers. "Hard to believe they simply lived here, and talked to dead people, and nothing else."

"They probably did other stuff," Ricky countered. "I mean, everyone has a hobby."

Adrian looked at him. "You see anything around here that looks like a supermarket? A movie theater? A stadium? If these people had sports, and music, and plays, and movies, and car racing, and skydiving, and all the other things we like to do, where the heck did they go to do it?"

Pacha, sitting on Mike's lap, turned to look at them. "Our research group considered the possibility that this world was not a standard habitation for the builders, but more like a...a university, back on your own world. Or a research facility of some sort. Certainly, the cities of this world seem designed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to house those who came to these domes to speak with the dead."

Sefton opened a compartment and passed out handheld lights to everyone. The saucer's entry door opened, and they all climbed out to stand on the smooth, square pavers of the ancient city. "This exactly where I bring you before," Sefton told them. "Same dome, over there."

Charlie gazed about, along with the others. The towers were large, and they marched away into the distance and became lost in the deeper darkness. That the city was far larger than any present settlement on the surface of Engris was plain to see. This had been the home of a million people, easily, and perhaps more.

The nearest building was one of the domes, and Charlie somehow knew it was the same dome they had visited before, even had Sefton not told them. He snapped on his light and pointed it that way. "We go there," he said, looking at Max and the younger elves.

Mike came to stand next to him, Pacha cradled in his arms. Max came around and stood next to Kippy, and gazed at the dome with a solemn expression. "I feel it. The pathway. This is some really powerful stuff."

Pacha nodded. "It strikes me thus, as well. The draw for my people to investigate this place is a strong one."

Max turned to Charlie. "And you know some, um...people that have come up the pathway? You've talked to them?"

"Yes. Billy Matson, and Will Hopkins." Charlie smiled. "Friends. We met them, well, in a haunted house. No other way to describe it."

Max nodded. "Oh, sure. We know about that. Lots of people places on Earth have that going on. Never met any of the gone-folk myself, but I did know they came around sometimes. Pretty interesting stuff."

"It's different for you?" Kippy asked. "I mean, for elves? When you, um, die, you don't zip off and explore the universe and stuff?"

Max laughed. "It's different for us. But I'll tell you about it another time, okay? I got a feeling we need to get moving."

Sefton leaned up against the side of his vehicle, crossed his arms, and offered one of his odd smiles. "Be right here."

Charlie smiled, remembering that the big man had a clear respect for boundaries when it came to interacting with spirits. If the ghosts were over there, Sefton had decided that he would stay over here. That it was more out of some sort of respect he felt, rather than fear, also seemed to be plain. More or less.

Kippy waved a hand, and started towards the dome. Charlie trotted to catch up, and settled into a walk beside his boyfriend. "Anxious to see Will and Billy again?"

"Of course. They're both such sweet guys. I love that they're together now, and happy." Kippy smiled at him. "We'll be like that one day."

Charlie couldn't help smiling himself at that one. Somehow, the idea of spending all of eternity with Kippy made him happy to consider. "I'll have to dress for it, I guess."

Kippy gave him a puzzled look. "What does that mean?"

"Well, if you're gonna drag me all over creation, I'll need my boots and a raincoat, I'm sure."

Kippy laughed, and circled an arm around Charlie's and pulled him closer. "There's still plenty of time yet."

Charlie nodded, and waved his light slowly over the structure as they approached, once again noting the mosaic covering that had so impressed him on the last visit, 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.

"These guys didn't make anything small," Max observed, as they drew up before the large double doors set into a covered entry at the base of the dome.

"We don't know how big they were," Mike said, shining his own light at the pleasant patterns etched into the doors. "But Pach and I went to one of the towers once, and the doorways are big there, too."

Charlie nodded, playing his light over the patterns engraved into the doors. They were of no one thing, not even a picture, yet somehow suggested rolling hills with forested flanks, a waterfall, and a sun or a moon overhead. The craftsmanship was exquisite, the detail incredible.

"I can't get over how new it all looks," Adrian said, reaching out to touch the metal of one door. "These aren't even tarnished."

"The alloys they used did not react with oxygen," Pacha said. "And without the passage of time here, actual age is not a factor, anyway."

Frit gave a low whistle, and Pip edged closer to his boyfriend. Ricky smiled at them, and laid a hand on Frit's shoulder. "Give you the creeps? It sure did for us the first time we were here."

Frit nodded. "It's the sense of forever, but that it never passes."

"Time, standing still," Pip agreed. "An eon and a day, all the same thing."

"Elves and time are old friends," Max explained. "To be somewhere it does not extend is a little odd. A little lonely."

Kippy pouted, and extended a hand towards the elf. "I'll hold your hand, if you like."

Max opened his mouth to decline, but then looked over at Frit and Pip, pulled together closely for comfort. And then he smiled, and took Kippy's hand.

Charlie repressed a smile of his own, and stepped up to the right-hand door. It towered above him, appeared to be made of steel, and certainly weighed more than their entire group. Yet when he gave it a slight push it turned silently inward, smoothly, and without so much as a pause. The space beyond was genuinely dark, and they aimed their lights through the opening and were not terribly surprised to see that the structure was still completely empty. It was large enough to cover a football field, and the roof was obviously self-supporting. The floor inside was of the same type of pavers as covered the square outside. The interior of the dome was simply a huge open space of no obvious purpose.

But in the very center of the darkened chamber was a large, circular opening, easily twenty-five feet across, which extended to the very core of the artificial planet. This was the gate, the pathway along which the dead could emerge into the controlled environment of the dome, there to interact with the living. Charlie could only imagine a time when many people of the builder race had stood in dome chambers like this one, all over Engris, conversing with spirits of those that had gone.

"How does it work?" Frit asked, gazing about with wide eyes.

Pacha pointed at the floor beneath their feet. "The center of this world is hollow, and the home of energies we do not quite understand. To those passed away spirits journeying the great beyond, the center of this world shines like a beacon in the darkness. They are attracted to it, arrive at its core, and then can rise up the tunnels from the there to meet with the living in these domes. But they cannot exit the domes. The only way to leave is the way they arrived, by retracing their route to the center, and then away again."

Max shook his head. "The boss oughta see this." But then he frowned. "Heck, he might already know about it. The Big Guy has really been around."

Pacha gazed at the elf with interest. "Who is this 'Big Guy'?"

Max grinned. "Oh, my boss. It's...heck, it's another long story. I'll tell you about it later, okay?"

"I will take that as a promise," Pacha warned, a glow of humor in his soft brown eyes.

Charlie smiled. Those two were fast becoming friends, and the outcome of that was sure to be interesting. The universe certainly worked in mysterious ways! Putting these two together had to be something of a charm, a thumbing of the nose at chaos. Max and Pacha were each very capable on their own, and together they had the potential to be world-beaters. Having them along on this quest was definitely reassuring that the outcome might be in their favor. The Moth had better look out!

Max released Kippy's hand and pointed a finger at Frit and Pip. "You two stay close, okay? No wandering around this place by yourselves."

The elf boys shook their heads in unison. "We won't," Frit assured. That the boy meant it seemed clear, and Charlie could see now that the eeriness of this place could even get to elves.

"So what do we do now?" Max asked. "Give a whistle, and see who shows up?"

"We didn't do anything special last time," Adrian told him. "Will and Billy just showed up on their own."

Charlie looked over at the hole in the floor then, a sudden feeling of expectation coming over him. Kippy tightened his grip on Charlie's arm, and leaned forward. "Do you feel...?"

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 was like voices, but from afar, and so many that it was a chorus, with each separate voice lost among the others. They had heard the strange sounds before, the last time they were here, 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. "Hello, Charlie. Hello Kippy. My, what a group you have with you this time!" He turned, and his eyes crinkled in a smile. "Pacha'ka! Wonderful to see you again."

Now Will raised a hand and pointed at them, too. "Hi Rick! Hi Adrian! And Mike! And I see some new faces, too. Can you introduce us, Charlie?"

Charlie did that, pointing out Max and the elf boys, who seemed delighted at the turn of events.

"Awesome!" Frit said, beaming. "I've never met anyone like you! You smell great!"

Pip nodded enthusiastically. "Gentle power, like big, friendly clouds! Wonderful!"

Max nodded. "I gotta agree, fellas. You two are different from anyone we've ever met. It's really a nice experience to meet ya."

Billy laughed. "To think I lived all those years on Earth and was completely unaware that your kind existed. And Santa, too!"

Max gave a little cringe, and looked up at the great dome above them. "Uh, we don't call him that out loud, 'case he might hear us. I just call him 'boss', or the 'Big Guy'. If he hears his name and it grabs his attention, he'll come and see what's up, and, uh, he's kinda busy right now."

Billy and Will looked at each other and smiled. "We'll be more careful, now that we know," Will said.

"Although it would be a thrill to meet him," Billy added.

The two spirits turned then. "Pacha'Ka, and Mike." Will gave a small wink. "I see that things with the Arpathant worked out for you."

Pacha bobbed his head up and down. "Yes. And with no small thanks to your encouragement, I may add. Life with the Arpathant gone has been quite pleasant for my people."

"We looked in on them, in their new universe," Billy went on. "They are busy arguing among themselves over what happened. They seem to think that it was the rest of the universe that vanished, and not them. They were making plans to move into what is Moth space here, but empty space there, and chortling and hooting about the new empire they would have. I think it will be some time, yet, before it dawns on them that they are truly alone."

Kippy sighed happily, wanting to change the subject. "Forget them for now. How have you guys been? Still out exploring all of creation?" And then he leaned a little closer. "Can you stay a while? Last time, you guys were only partly here, and had to go. It would be nice to visit a little, this time."

Charlie remembered that the last time they had met Billy and Will here, the spirits had left part of themselves somewhere else, some place they had been exploring, as a sort of bookmark so that they could find their way back. Apparently, even being a spirit had limitations.

"We are all here, this time," Billy explained. "This time is different."

There was something in the way that Billy said that that grabbed Charlie's attention. "What's different?"

"You are on a mission this time," Will stated. "And a very important one, too. A mission that concerns all of Earth, its safety and its future. This makes it important to us, as well."

"You know about it?" Kippy asked.

Billy nodded. "In some alternate realities, it has already played out. In some, you are triumphant. In others, that is not the case. And in still others, the Earth is laid waste. This cannot be allowed to happen here."

Will smiled. "We have come to assist you."

Pacha raised a hand and waved it. "How can you assist us on this mission?"

"Easy." Billy smiled. "We're going with you."

For a moment, no one moved, and complete silence reigned.

Pacha was the first to speak. "Impossible! You cannot pass beyond these walls!"

Will nodded. "That's true - in this form. As we are now, we cannot pass the barriers that the builders of this place installed, to protect those of our kind with a wanderlust, from exploring."

"But we can pass them, if we are within the proper container," Billy added.

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances. "Container?" Kippy asked.

"Yes." The two spirit boys laughed, and Charlie grinned at the absolute synchronicity of the act. Like one mind, in two bodies.

"You mean, like a genie's bottle?" Ricky asked, shaking his head. "We don't have one."

"We will make one," Will answered. "With your help."

Again, no one said anything for a moment. Charlie's own thoughts swirled about inside his head, as he tried to visualize what sort of container could carry two spirits out into the Cooee.

"Or, rather, these two will make it, with our assistance," Billy said, smiling at Max, and then Pacha.

For once, Max looked totally at a loss. "I ain't got no idea how to do that."

Pacha nodded. "I must admit to having no knowledge in this area, either."

Will and Billy each held up a hand. "Observe," they said, as one.

In the air above the two boys, a softly glowing globe appeared, which suddenly dispersed into a cloud of light that stretched across the dome above them. Within the cloud appeared strange forms and symbols of many colors, that pulsed and moved in a slow dance about each other. A soft chorus of sound came to Charlie's ears, whispers of voices amidst other sounds that appeared to be natural ones, as if nature herself had suddenly spoken out loud. Charlie heard hints of thunder and rain, and wind all about, with the brief roar of a lion, and the trumpeting of an elephant, and the sounds of crickets scraping and birds calling, somewhere there in the background. The sounds rolled together, merged with the colorful symbols and forms glowing and dancing in the cloud above them, and then separated once again, only to immediately reform into new combinations.

It was the song of life, and the energy of life, a tremendous, powerful force that filled Charlie and made him happy and terrified at the same moment. The energy present was beyond comprehension, the sense that he stood at the edge of an infinitely deep chasm, one step away from eternity, strong. Yet he also knew that he could not fall, and that the immense presence of life and energy spanning millions of years of galactic time and space, and countless worlds, and a billion and more forms of life, was not for him to do more than to observe.

These things seemed all to have a signature, or, rather, two of them, that smiled and laughed and had every bit of the joy in them that Charlie felt from knowing both Max and Pacha. This was for them, and them alone.

Frit and Pip had turned to watch the older elf, their eyes aglow with interest, their faces filled with affection for him.

"I can only get about half of it," Max said softly, staring up into the wonder overhead.

"I can only fathom as much myself," Pacha agreed, his voice carrying a note of wonder.

"Half for each of you," Billy said then. "But opposite halves. You must work together, to join them."

Of his own accord, Mike moved to stand beside Max, and Pacha extended his hands towards Max. The elf nodded, reached out and took Pacha into the cradle of his arms. And then the two of them closed their eyes, and tilted their faces up towards the maelstrom of light and sound above.

Kippy moved to Charlie's side, and Charlie pulled him close and put an arm around him. Ricky did the same with Adrian, and Frit and Pip were already together, their eyes on Max. Mike seemed at a loss as to what to do with himself, and Kippy smiled at him and motioned him closer, and put an arm around him and drew him near.

They watched in silence then, as the forces that swirled above them started a new round of dances, which quickly increased to a near frenzy of motion, and finally became a blur. Charlie felt his eyes blinking and rolling as they tried to fasten on something he could understand, and then he simply gave up and closed his eyes altogether. Yet the sense of motion still came to him, as if he was somehow seeing in the dark now, and he understood that what was happening all about him was as much within the mind as it was something to be observed.

"Oh," Max said, his voice sounding amazed. "I see now!"

"Yes, it is so," Pacha agreed. "And thus, and, wait..."

"That goes here," Max said. "And that...bring it over, and under...

"I did not see that, but you are right," Pacha agreed. "And this turns so."

"It made that go here," Max said, laughing. "So I have to..."

"And I will need to..."

Their voices seemed to merge, and Charlie's brain briefly fuzzed out, as if he had fallen asleep. For a moment he simply floated in a sea of light, as content as he had ever been in his life. Just next to him, a beautiful little pearl of light glowed, and Charlie knew that it was Kip, there beside him, now and forever. The two of them floated along together in the sea for an immeasurable moment, their auras locked together, while the light swirled and flowed around him, comforting yet energetic. That they were somehow present at an act of unique creation came to him then, and he opened his eyes, just as the great cloud of light and energy above him flowed back together and became a sparkling column, which reached down towards the ground nearby and began to flow and collect into a recognizably manlike shape.

It took form, tall and glowing, becoming sharper and more defined, until there was what seemed to be a silent clap of thunder inside Charlie's head, and the light vanished into the still form. There was a brief sound, or thought, like a mental echo, that reverberated both inside Charlie's head and within the walls of the great dome, and then, complete and utter silence.

Max sighed. "That was a job, alright."

"One well done," Pacha said, admiringly. "You can teach me a few things about Ka."

Max laughed. "Me? I was learning from you, Pacha."

The little koala gave a very satisfied, very human-sounding sigh. "We can teach each other much, Max. It was a very fortuitous event, that you came along with the boys on this journey."

Max turned to grin at Charlie and Kip. "These guys've been surprising me ever since I met 'em. I don't think much happens by accident, with them around."

"It's Skwish," Kippy said, smiling. "Like karma, only atomic powered."

"You have succeeded," Will said, drawing their attention again. "We now have the container we need in order to leave this place and accompany you."

Charlie and the others had briefly forgotten the manlike thing that Max and Pacha had created, and everyone now turned to look at it.

"Whoa," Ricky said immediately. "Think it's big enough?"

Charlie had to agree. The manlike thing that stood beyond Billy and Will was easily seven feet tall. It was silvery and smooth, and wearing what looked like silvery briefs, though no bulge was present within them. But it was the creature's head that was most impressive: a massive orb, with metallic discs where a human's ears would be, and what looked like a silvery, opaque visor where there should be eyes. The face below that visor was as smooth and featureless as most of the creature's body, which was without ornamentation, save for a silvery wristlet on each arm, which was probably functional, and not for decoration, anyway.

Charlie stared at the thing, a sense that he had seen it before coming to him strongly.

"I know that face," Kippy said then, causing Charlie to grin. Telepathy!

"Yeah," Ricky agreed. "It's from an old movie, isn't it?"

Billy laughed in delight. "This is Gort. He's the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Charlie stared at the creature again, and then nodded. Ten or so years before, there had been a movie with Keanu Reeves, in which he played an alien come to earth to either save us or destroy us. Charlie remembered that Keanu's character had been accompanied by a giant robot...but not this one.

Years before Keanu had even been born, there had been another version of this same movie, the first version. An old black and white film, that Charlie had seen once or twice on late night cable. Where Keanu's version had been a special effects film, like so much science fiction today, this original film had been quiet, and literate, and with a special sense about it that Charlie remembered well. A film with a message.

"You picked an oldie, didn't you?" Adrian said, scratching his cheek.

"But a goodie," Billy said. He turned to look at the robot. "You forget, that we were born long before you, Charlie. This movie came out when I was thirteen. I was in love with it, with it's message of peace for all. I had a poster of Gort and Klaatu on my bedroom wall."

Will laughed, and rolled his eyes. "So when we designed this container, Billy wanted to specify the physical look himself. This is what we got."

That this was said with great affection was not lost on Charlie, and Billy turned to grin at Will. "You loved that movie, too!"

Will just shrugged, and smiled.

"So what will you do now?" Kippy asked. "Crawl inside that thing and come with us?"

"That's just about right," Billy agreed.

"Both of you, in one can?" Ricky asked. "Won't that be hard on you guys?'

Again, both spirit boys laughed as one. "We are already one mind, Ricky," Billy said. "We appear before you as Will and Billy, but in that sense, it is just for you."

"But we are joined," Will explained. "In our travels together, we are now one." He smiled at Billy. "I will love being in the same can with you."

The two spirit boys turned, and approached the big robot, and simply walked into it, and disappeared. The robot lifted an arm, flexed the joined fingers of one hand, and then laid that hand against its chest. "Ah. Fits like a glove," it said.

Charlie gave a gasping laugh.The voice that emerged from the robot was smooth, powerful, and unique, yet it also was clearly a joining of both Billy's and Will's voices. There was just enough of a vague quality of separation to imagine the two of them talking at once.

"This will make conversation interesting," Kippy said, grinning. "How will we know who is talking?"

"For most things it will be fine if we both speak as one." The combined voice gave a soft chuckle, which struck Charlie as just wonderfully out of place coming from the stern, blank visage of the alien robot.

"But we can each speak alone, if we wish," Billy's voice said.

"Not that we do," Will's voice added.

Kippy just beamed. "This is going to be so cool!"

Ricky grinned. "We're gonna be a real mob by the time we get to Moth space."

"I count eleven of us now," Adrian said.

"Twelve," Frit corrected. "There's Murcha, too."

"What a horde!" Pip hooted. "I feel sorry for T'ath already!"

Pacha seemed pleased by the turn of events. "I suspect that our chances of success have just risen appreciably." He held out his hands towards Mike, who stepped forward to reclaim him. But the little koala turned his eyes back on Max then, and offered that strange look that Charlie had come to associate with a Kifta smile. "It will be interesting working with you, Max."

Max also grinned. "I'll say! Wait until the boys back at the shop hear about this!"

Charlie laughed at that. The boys back at the shop were going to get an earful, when this was all over.

The great dome was quiet now. Gort, carrying Will's and Billy's spirits, turned and headed for the dome's exit. Charlie immediately decided to stop thinking of their container as a robot, for it surely was not that. It's appearance aside, the medley of amazing forces that had gone into the making of the thing were as far above the constituents of a simple robotic machine as Charlie could imagine. That the container was neither electronic nor mechanical in nature was clear.

Charlie and the others followed, watching, halfway expecting some invisible force to halt the robot at the door. But Gort passed through the opening unimpeded, and soon they all stood on the pavers outside once more. The door, as if sensing their departure, swung slowly closed behind them.

"I'm interested to see what Sefton makes of this," Charlie said, looking at the saucer. It's owner was now seated inside, but stood and moved to the edge of the craft's interior and placed his hands on the rim, bending forward slightly to watch them as they approached. That he was staring at Gort was clear, and Charlie could only imagine what the man might be thinking.

But the Molokar were apparently as practical a people as they were courageous, and as the group boarded the craft, the alien simply watched Gort find a seat, and then turned to gaze at Pacha with a slightly apologetic look. "See there is now one more of you. Slightly higher transport fee now applies."

They just laughed, and Sefton took his own seat at the controls, and took them back to town.

"You think leaving your ship here will be okay?" Charlie asked Mike, as their group reached the spaceport.

"Oh, sure. Nobody will mess with it here on Engris. It would mean 'em getting kicked right out."

They had come back to Sefton's garage, said goodbye to the man, and promised to look him up when they returned, for another trip to the dead city. That the fellow was burning to ask how Gort had come to join them in the supposedly deserted dome seemed obvious; put his professionalism kept him from inquiring.

Their walk through town back to the port had drawn some small attention, in the form of curious stares from some that they passed by in the street. They were quite a varied group, now, with five humans, three elves, an alien wearing a koala for a body, and a robot from an old science fiction movie. Not that anyone knew these things; but that they were a unique enough group to command the curiosity of others was apparent.

They finally reached Pacha's ship, and walked beyond it to their own. Murcha dropped the boarding tube, and they were all wafted aboard.

"Amazing," the combined voice of Billy/Will said through Gort. "This is nothing like I expected a spaceship to be like."

"There's all kinds," Kippy said. "This one is kind of dark and creepy, but Murcha is a great host."

"Thank you, Kip." Murcha sounded pleased at the compliment.

"I know that voice," Gort said immediately.

Charlie grinned. "We've already been there, guys. It's the voice of the guy that sang the songs in How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

"No, that's not what I'm thinking of," Billy's voice alone said. "I know!. It sounds like Mr. Tremblay, down at the hardware store, when I was a kid!"

"It does," Will's voice agreed. "Old Mr. Tremblay. There was a strange man."

"Do you remember...?" Billy asked.

"I do!" Will answered. The two apparently took the conversation to an internal level after that, and no more sounds came forth from the robot.

Kippy shook his head, and smiled at Charlie. "And we're not even off the ground yet."

Charlie grinned, and then looked around at the interior of the circular chamber. Everything seemed to be in order. "Been holding down the fort okay?" he asked the shipmind, as they all found places in the circular command chamber of the vessel.

"Yes. I have been in conversation with Illia while I waited. We have been enjoying learning about each other, and discussing the universe in general."

"Who's Illia? "Kippy asked, cocking a puzzled eye at the overhead.

Mike snickered. "The mind on Pacha's ship. She's a handful, that one."

Charlie and Kippy grinned at each other. "She?" Kippy repeated, questioningly.

Mike shrugged. "Well, you know. Gender's not a real issue with a shipmind, other than as an accent. They can be assigned something other than the neuter state when they're installed, but it's pretty much up to the ship owner."

"Murcha is a dude," Ricky said. "Got a dude voice, and all."

Charlie laughed. Their own shipmind definitely had a masculine voice, no question about that.

"All Moth ship minds are male-patterned," Murcha explained. "Moth females are not allowed to hold positions of authority within the fleet."

Kippy curled his lip. "One more reason not to like them!"

Charlie had to agree. Any society where the genders were not equal was a primitive one, to his mind. The Moth might be technological giants, but socially, they seemed pretty ignorant.

"I never heard this Illia talk," Adrian said. "Not the whole time we were on Pacha's ship."

"There wasn't a reason, I guess." Mike shrugged. "Pach talks to her with mind-talk, so you don't hear that. I talk to her now and then, and she knows Australian" -- he grinned --"I mean, she knows English, but she can be kind of snooty, and I'll be stuffed if I'm putting up with that!"

Pacha gave out a little chik-chik-chik. "She is willful, but she is a very competent ship mind." The little koala blinked. and then turned to look at Mike. "Hmm. Perhaps we should bring her along? She could only aid us, with her knowledge of empire histories, and her skills with languages."

Mike opened his mouth to answer, his expression already saying no!, but Murcha beat him to the punch.

"Oh! That would be wonderful!"

Mike grimaced and made a face, and Kippy squeezed his eyes shut and laughed. It was so cute that Charlie's heart kaboomped within his chest, and he had to smile, too.

"There's one vote," Kippy said, smiling at Charlie. "Any others?"

Charlie nodded, looking sympathetically at Mike. "Sure, if she'll be a help, let's bring her."

Mike glared at him a moment, but then looked resigned. He let one eye wander up towards the overhead. "Uh, sure, if your Murcha wants the company." He turned to Pacha. "Shall I run over and get her?"

"No need." Pacha walked to the central globe, which displayed his own bubble ship nearby, and closed his eyes. Charlie and Kippy walked over, followed by Frit and Pip; and soon they were all standing around the globe, watching Pacha's ship. Charlie was again amazed by the central globe's ability to show the exact same view to everyone, no matter where they were placed around the globe's circumference. The secret if that technology alone could make him rich, back on Earth.

The hull of Pacha's ship dilated open at the base, and a tiny flash of light escaped from inside and arrowed straight at the Moth vessel. Murcha emitted an indescribable sound, and they heard the odd stretchy purr of their own landing tube extending. A moment later, there was a flash of light from the entry to the circular chamber, and something zipped past Charlie's nose and landed squarely in Pacha's outstretched hand.

Everyone bent forward to look. A tiny blue globe, almost an exact duplicate of Pacha's ship in miniature, now sat in the koala's tiny hand. It's diameter was no more than the length of Charlie's thumb, and he stared in surprise, having imagined something much larger and bulkier.

"That's it?" Kippy asked, giving voice to Charlie's own unasked question.

"Yes." Pacha nodded, looking at the globe. "Illia, this is..." and he began to introduce everyone to the shipmind.

"I am honored to meet you all," said a smooth, feminine voice. "Except for you, Mike, whom I already know all too well."

"Right back atcha," Mike said, grinning at Charlie's look of surprise. The Aussie boy gave a sigh, and then just laughed. "We play a lot."

"I see." Charlie noted Pacha's almost-a-smile, and nodded. "Great to have you with us, Illia." He looked about the room. "Now, where would be a safe place to put you for now...?"

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

"I would be honored to share my space with you," Murcha's deep voice offered.

Pacha spread his fingers, releasing the globe, and it flew to the drawer and settled into the round depression, a perfect fit. The drawer slid closed with a small snick.

"What about your ship?" Ricky asked, turning from the screen to look at Mike. "Isn't it defenseless now, without it's mind?"

"Nah. Like I say, no one will bother it here. But even if that happened, the security center is more than smart enough to defend the ship."

There was a rumble from powerful machinery beneath the deck, and then Murcha's deep voice filled the room. "Ready to leave when instructed."

Max looked around at everyone, but no one said a word. He shrugged, and nodded. "You know where we have to go, Murcha?"

"Yes. The fortress at Challont, on Mufa'alatra. We will be unable to go and simply land there, of course, but we should be able to get to the Mufa'alatra star system with no trouble at all."

Max looked at the koala. "Pacha?"

"We are as ready as we can be, I think."

Max held up a hand. "Go ahead, Murcha."

The vibration beneath their feet increased, and then ebbed into an almost unnoticeable purr. On the viewing globe, the spaceport of Engris dropped away, the dark world quickly receded to a globe, and then vanished into the darkness of the Cooee.

They were on their way.

"I think we need to call a council of war," Max said quietly, moving his eyes from the now darkened viewing globe to those around him. The ship had adapted to their increased numbers, and an extra-tall pylon had been added to the circle of pylons around the central globe, just the right size for Gort to lean against. Next to the robot, Mike had the front of his jacket unzipped, and Pacha was tucked inside, with a good view of everything going on. Charlie smiled, once again marveling at the power of friendship.

"Agreed." Pacha's soft brown eyes moved among those watching him. "And I am not good at war, I am afraid. so everyone's input here will be important."

Max nodded. "It's not exactly something us elves have much to do with, either."

Charlie sighed. "None of us are experienced soldiers. We're going to have to make do with planning using things we have read, or just common sense."

Ricky laughed. "Good thing we have Britannica Brain along."

He had to explain that comment, as neither Will nor Billy nor the shipminds were familiar with it. Ricky frowned after he had done so, and shrugged his shoulders. "Although, even Charlie can't know everything."

Kippy reached over and patted Charlie's arm. "There there, Charlie. Ricky didn't mean it. I'm your boyfriend, and I happen to know that you do know everything."

Charlie grinned. "Oh, shut up." He looked over at Max. "Let's start with the obvious. Getting there."

"Yeah." Max considered that a moment. "Murcha is our resident expert on all things Moth. So maybe he can tell us what to expect as we approach this place."

"Very well, Max. To begin, Mufa'alatra is considered a frontier world, as it lies just fifteen light years inside the former boundary between Moth and Arpathant space. The planet virtually belongs to T'ath, and he is the only actual resident. There is a government zone, with a spaceport and warehouse facilities, and the port is used solely as a transshipping center for imports from deeper within the empire bound for other frontier worlds. The actual purpose of the port is to allow a government presence, as the Moth do not like the idea of any of their citizens completely owning any world. They feel that that breeds ambition, and there is quite enough of that within the Moth culture as it is."

"Greedy, huh?" Max shook his head. "Those can be the worst types to deal with."

Yes. As I mentioned once before, there is no official Moth fleet. Ships within Moth space belong to individuals, and will only assemble and work together under complex agreements, to defend Moth space in an emergency. Some citizens only own one vessel, while those with greater wealth may own tens, or even hundreds, of vessels. T'ath owns approximately two hundred vessels, all like this one, but varying in size."

"Warships?" Mike asked. "Anything like those big cruisers the Arpies had?"

"All Moth vessels are armed similarly. Moth technology is sufficiently competent that the smallest vessels are just as powerful as the largest. Unlike the Arpathant tendency to stack power systems and weapons arrays into vessels of increasingly larger volume, Moth power and weapons technologies are at the theoretical limits already, and are no longer additive. This small vessel is the equal of - and probably superior to - the largest cruiser in the former Arpathant fleet."

Ricky whistled. "Wow."

Charlie looked about the central chamber with new respect, remembering the mammoth size of Korig's Arpie cruiser, and unable to imagine that this small vessel was its equal. "Is Moth technology that much more advanced than what the Arpies had?"

"Only in certain areas, Charlie. The Moth are an extremely practical breed, and do not waste science where they feel it is not needed. Much of what you would consider to be consumer technology is not much more advanced than what the Arpathants possessed. But in areas of projecting their power and will, they excel, and their power and weapons technologies are second to none within the known areas of the galaxy."

Adrian patted the armrest of his pylon. "So are you saying that this ship is powerful enough that we can force our way onto Mufa'alatra?"

"No. The limits of transportable weapons and defense technologies do not bind planetary defensive technologies, where equipment size is simply not a factor. The Moth possess offensive and defensive technologies simply too large to be practical for ships of space. But in the defense of worlds, they can be - and are - used everywhere within Moth space."

Charlie frowned at that. "So how do we land without getting disintegrated or blown up?"

Gort raised a hand, and the combined voices of Billy and Will spoke out. "This is the reason we wished to come along, Charlie. We have certain abilities that, in combination with the abilities of Max and Pacha, should enable us to secure a landing on Mufa'alatra."

Max looked astonished at that. "Yeah?"

"Yes. Murcha, what would happen if you simply showed up at T'ath's planet, and said you had left Earth after the Moth crew had been evicted, and were now reporting back to your base?"

"Security protocols are always in effect. The vessel would be scanned, and the presence of unauthorized personnel detected."

"What if we were able to hide the presence of all life aboard this vessel?"

"The two Moth that I transported down to the surface of Earth left instructions not to depart without them. Under my old security strictures, I would still be parked in Charlie's backyard beneath my scat field, invisible to all until they actually entered the field and encountered the hull. The Moth in the orbiting vessel could have lifted the restriction against me leaving without the crew, but that task was omitted in their haste to depart Earth orbit, and would be a matter of record. The defensive mind on Mufa'alatra will be aware that I was not allowed to leave Earth, and the fact that I did so will be reason for alarm."

Kippy blew a burst of air between his lips. "It sounds like that old book, Catch-22, to me. Damned if we do, and damned if we don't."

"Can you just hide the entire ship?" Adrian asked. "So that we could sneak in?"

"I don't think so," Gort answered. "Max? Pacha? Anything either of you can do there?"

Max frowned. "I can make it invisible, but just because they can't see it won't mean they can't detect it. Visible light is just one part of the spectrum. We'd still show in the infrared, because of the amount of heat this crate generates."

"Well, what about your scat field?" Charlie asked of Murcha. "I thought that made your ships undetectable?"

"To a technology at the level of your Earth's, yes," Murcha responded. "This vessel would undetectable. Scat fields vary in capability, and the Moth version is superior to the one the Arpathant used. Arpathant vessels were still detectable by Moth ships. The reverse was not also true, however. That was one reason the Arpathant were such good neighbors."

Adrian grunted. "But the Moth can detect their own ships, even when they are hiding behind a scat field?"

"The Moth scat field incorporates a component that purposely allows it to be detectable to Moth scanners. This component is integral, and cannot be removed without disabling the scat field entirely. The Moth do not trust anyone, even each other."

Mike slapped his hands down on the armrests of his pylon. "So it sounds like we can't get in. We can't fight our way in, and we can't sneak in. What the hell is left?"

Gort pushed himself erect from his pylon and moved away from the central globe. "Max, we need a table. Can you make us one, with seating for all?"

Max grunted and pushed off his own pylon. He waved a hand at the open space nearby, and a large, ornate round table appeared, with equally ornate high-backed wooden chairs spaced around it. Each was lavishly carved, the wood of the armrests and backs lovingly worked into representations of dragon's heads, griffons, and nartheby sprites. The table itself was just as uniquely decorated, and boasted a white marble center suitable for flagons of ale and plates of boar and thunderbeast, and whatever other delicacy the imagination might provide.

Kippy literally bounced away from his pylon and went straight for the table, drawing his hands up to his cheeks in amazement. "Oh, look at this! It's beautiful!"

Charlie and the others followed, and Charlie inspected the table as he arrived beside one chair. The wood looked immensely heavy, and old; and yet, it was beautifully polished and well kept. That the thing was an antique was obvious, and it just emanated a splendor and power unlike any piece of furniture Charlie had ever seen before.

Max passed Charlie and went to another chair, and waved a hand at the others. "Gather round, gents, and find a seat."

One chair was a little larger, a little more splendid than the others, and Billy and Will, in Gort, took that one. Kippy rubbed his fingers over the polished wood after he had seated himself, and looked over at Max, his eyes shining. "I need you to decorate my bedroom for me, okay?"

"And I'm after him," Adrian added, his eyes large and full of wonder. "Where on earth did you get this?"

Max smiled. "Borrowed it out of history. We should have it back before Arthur needs it again. I hope he won't mind."

Charlie laughed, and Kippy turned to look at him, his eyes large. "Do you think he means...?"

But then Gort leaned forward, and the combined voices of Will and Billy spoke out. "Come closer, gentlemen, and let us lay our plans."

"What plans?" Ricky asked, sounding exasperated..

"Yeah, "Mike added. "We can't bull our way in, and we can't slip in undetected. What's left?"

It was Billy alone that answered. "History provides us with three tactics we can use here, and we have only considered two so far. It's time to consider the third one, I think."

"What are you talking about?" Adrian demanded.

If the robot's face could have smiled, it would have done so at that moment. "We know a frontal assault won't work," Billy continued. "And we know we cannot enter by covert means. So now it comes down to a method that humans have refined to an absolute art. Deception."

Now Will laughed, and there was something deliciously sinister about it. "We're going to play trick or treat!"

Kalaf had the duty that evening, and from what the transport logs said, it should be a peaceful shift. There were a dozen freighters due in over at the government port, but nothing scheduled to arrive at T'ath's personal field, there at the base of the Kadra'orif Mountains. That meant little for Kalaf to do in the way of actual work at all. The automated systems that T'ath employed to run and watch over his domain were of the latest type, and had reached a point where the average Moth had little power to second guess them. While that translated to less in the way of work, it also equaled a lesser level of authority, and Kalaf had gotten used to standing at his post and letting the minds that ran things make all the decisions.

Briefly, he considered his employer. T'ath was not the wealthiest Moth, by far, but he was considered to be one of the most dangerous. The information gathering abilities of the man were second to none, and the secrets he held closely, enough by far to guarantee him the tolerance - and even the patronage - of some of the wealthiest families within the empire. Kalaf would have killed to operate at the level that T'ath had attained, but to even voice such an idea on T'ath's own world would be to invite dismissal and a quick removal from his post. T'ath little tolerated competition, especially from within his own domain, and legion were the overly ambitious who had fallen by the wayside for trying to take too much upon themselves in the way of authority while in his employ. You either worked for the man, or not at all.

Kalaf turned his head, gazing out the tinted window at the citadel upon its mountain, that was Challont. The structure was copied from Moth history, an exact replica of the fortress at Marbone on the Moth homeworld, site of the infamous defeat of the triumvir kings. There, fifteen millennia past, the thief-prince T'ath'O'Mallor, direct ancestor of the T'ath of today, and his forces had defeated a continent, and founded a dynasty that would rule for two millennia after.

Not that the modern T'ath was half the man his ancestor had been - at least in Kalaf's opinion. Yes, the T'ath of today was a wily one, and the technology and methods he had gathered around himself to locate, trace, and steal the secrets of the five surrounding star empires, undeniably potent in nature. T'ath possessed information gathering abilities superior to anything else in known space, and that gave him immense power and reach. It could have made him even wealthier than he was - but T'ath was a man who coveted influence rather than material wealth, for with influence, the wealth of others was at his beck and call.

But the man also had a tendency to extravagance - look at the place where he lived. Briefly, Kalaf inspected the stark towers and sharp fortifications of the structure, noting the dark influence of the Monath nihilist thinkers in its design. The place was sinister-looking, even for a Moth abode. And to have constructed it about a waste. Recreating a fifth millennium citadel out of the native rock of a mountain had been horrendously expensive, and while Kalaf believed that wealth was to be used, he also believed it was to be used to good purpose. Creating a duplicate structure out of modern building materials would have halved the cost - rock was notoriously weak next to modern graphenes, and special design features and added materials had been required to make it self supporting. But T'ath had wanted the original feel of the citadel his ancestor had taken in order to begin his reign, and so volumes of credit had been expended in pursuit of relatively worthless faith to the original structure.

But who was Kalaf, to determine how the great T'ath spent his wealth? Perhaps, someday, his would be an opinion to be valued by such a man; but for did not pay to be ambitious while in T'ath's employ. Kalaf had contented himself for now with being just one more cog in the machine that was T'ath's pocket empire, while working on the plans he had to elevate himself in stature elsewhere, someday.

A warning indicator suddenly glowed in the air before him, followed by a brief chirping sound. Kalaf leaned forward from his pylon to examine the hemispherical display screen, watching the information modules as they appeared, shifted, and linked to give an overall picture of events currently taking place well above the atmosphere, more than twelve planetary diameters out. A vessel had arrived, unannounced, and interdiction procedures had been initiated by the defensive mind.

The vessel, one belonging to T'ath, but currently listed as temporarily lost, had violated the criteria for a legal entry into atmosphere, and had been commanded to halt well beyond. Defensive weapons had been energized and focused on the vessel, and the crew was apparently trying to negotiate with the defensive mind, which was not the sort inclined to compromise.

Kalaf observed the video feed from the vessel, where two Moth were in place at the control center's command pylons, speaking earnestly, it seemed, with the planetary defensive mind. One of them even looked familiar - yes, it was Marbola, a relative of Kalaf's, recently dispatched with a crew on an investigative cruiser to trace down some clue that had surfaced as part of the investigation into the disappearance of the Arpathant empire. The disappearance of the Arpathant and all of their works was simply too colossal an event to have been kept a secret, and the Moth empire was abuzz with the news and speculation from border to border, and at every level of society. T'ath had some inner knowledge of the possible events leading up to this amazing vanishing, it seemed, and had sent several crews out to trace them down.

But...the very crew that Marbola was a part of had returned, just the other day, and Marbola had been among them! The vessel had arrived on Kalaf's shift, and he had viewed the crew assignments himself, including a visual of each member. That crew had gone straight into information quarantine, and so far as Kalaf knew, they were still there. How could it be that Marbola was now returning in a lost vessel, with another crew member that had also previously come home?

Kalaf nodded at the console, issued the thought command to increase the volume of the transmission.

"...telling you, that that was not us that returned the other day! Those were clones, part of a diabolical plan to infiltrate the empire! The cruiser was captured in orbit, and the crew replaced. We were scanned and our genetic print copied, but managed to escape from the ground, and to flee the system after hiding several days inside the rings of a giant planet. And now we are back, and with a warning! You must let us land!"

The defensive mind was not interested in stories. "Your genetic signatures match your identities, but then so did the signatures of those that returned before. Your shipmind confirms your story, but scans of your vessel indicate an energy potential slightly beyond that which can be accounted for by all operating systems and the presence of the two of you aboard. This matter must be examined thoroughly before events can be allowed to proceed. Instructions have gone out to confine the crew of the cruiser that returned, and the vessel itself. You will not be allowed to land, but will remain in orbit until such time as the investigation here on the ground can be completed." The voice was cold, impersonal, and seemed utterly implacable.

The Moth that appeared to be Marbola looked irritated. "But by then it may be too late! We must ground immediately and report!"

"You are not given permission to land. If your vessel moves any closer, you will be fired upon."

Kalaf was in a quandary. Here was one of those situations that only came along once in a lifetime. He had the power to intercede - T'ath did not even trust his defensive minds completely, and, ultimately, they were subservient to the commands of the Moth on watch duty. But to interfere now...what could be the ramifications? If these were intruders of some sort, and he allowed them to could mean his life. But, if, on the other hand, what they said was true, and infiltrators had already been allowed to ground, then T'ath, himself, could be in great danger. The man had enemies everywhere, and the disappearance of the Arpathant indicated a foe of great power and unusual resources. To not act might also mean his life - and those of every Moth on the planet.

His body decided for him, some stray, perhaps prescient current from his mind causing his arm to reach forward and his finger to depress the override. "Hold. This is Control One. Marbola?"

Two-way video was established, and the Moth on the unknown ship leaned forward. For a moment there was nothing; and then: "Kalaf? Is that you?"

A sense of relief washed through Kalaf. Marbola's genetic code may have been duplicated, but no known power could wrest the thoughts and memories from a Moth mind! "Yes. I have the watch. I have been listening, and have found the need to intercede. You now must convince me that this has been justified."

"I am aware of the procedure. Here are the facts: we landed upon the planet indicated in the Arpathant records. The world looked primitive, but it was all a cover, Kalaf. The primitives are hosts for a parasitic superior race of beings of great power. They captured the cruiser in orbit when it lowered its scat field to release our ship, and removed the crew. They sought our vessel on the ground, but apparently could not quite breach the scat field. We managed to lift off and escape, but were forced by pursuers to hide within a the ring system of a giant outer planet. Kalaf, these beings possess a technology that prevents vessels from entering voidspace! We were unable to make the transfer until they gave up searching the ringed world and moved on. A warning must be issued at once. These beings are responsible for the destruction of the Arpathant empire! And we are to be next!"

A sense of horror overtook Kalaf. Beings that could prevent a vessel from entering the void that allowed interstellar travel? They could shut down the entire empire, confine everyone to their worlds! And if they could so perfectly copy Moth personnel as to fool security minds...why, they could already be everywhere! A sense of paranoia grabbed at him then, one he had never felt before in his entire life. Invaders!

Another warning indicator lit in the air before him. "Marbola...your vessel is approaching the planet. You must remain where you are until final clearance is given!"

"Kalaf, you know it is I! Your brood brother, Enphid, attended lessons with my brood brother, Marmit. We share an Uncle each on the Council! Who could know this but I?"

That was true. Kalaf had not been allowed to speak to the Marbola that had landed the other day, but this one knew things that only a relative could know!

"Still, Marbola, you must wait for the proper clearances. If you make atmosphere before they are issued, even I cannot prevent the planetary batteries from firing upon your ship!"

"We will advance to the edge of the atmosphere, and wait. Hurry, Kalaf! Our lives may depend upon this!"

Marbola's urgency was dangerous. It might cause the man to do something regrettable, and the entire situation could spiral out of control. There were emergency measures Kalaf could use...but they were only indicated for the most desperate of contingencies. To use one now might be the worst mistake Kalaf would ever make.

And to not use one might also have grave consequences. For a moment Kalaf could not decide...and then the view of Marbola, and the desperate aura about him, was the determining factor. The Moth were not prone to displays of emotion. To see Marbola so obviously agitated gave weight to the man's conviction that T'ath - and even the Moth people - were in some kind of danger,

Kalaf issued a temporary clearance to the vessel that would stay the defensive batteries, at least for a time. Then he closed his eyes and linked to the defensive mind, and together they pored over the figures coming in from the scans of the approaching vessel: mass, density and constituents of hull materials, energy generation and consumption, life signatures of the two occupants, reference guides for the shipmind...Kalaf paused, looking at that last one. Strange.

Briefly he was aware that the vessel above had reached the outermost edge of the atmosphere and halted.

Kalaf reexamined the reference guides for the vessel's mind. Scans of the vessel reported an energy signature slightly elevated above what could be accounted for by the output of the ship's power systems, plus the thermal and bioelectric output of two Moth bodies aboard. The discrepancy was nominal, but consistent. What could account for that?

The discrepancy itself was less alarming than the fact that the shipmind aboard the vessel reported a normal output of energy. Scans could not be faked, whereas the output from a shipmind could be in error...if produced purposefully.

A wailing sound drew him from the link. Within the hemisphere of the viewer, the vessel above suddenly plummeted from orbit, heading for the ground. The link chimed for his attention, and the defensive mind informed him that the act had occurred at approximately the point where the vessel was farthest in its orbit from all the weapons batteries trained upon it. At its current rate of descent, it would very soon drop beneath the range of more than half of them to fire upon it.

This could only be a deliberate act! Again, Kalaf reached out for the console control which would remove his override and allow the defensive mind to act. But...his arm slowed, and then stopped, as if some invisible barrier had placed itself between him and the console. Fully alarmed now, Kalaf drew in his resources, closed his mind to tampering, and attempted to thrust his finger down on the button.

It moved forward, but slowly...ever so slowly. He redoubled his efforts, forcing his body to comply with his mind, even as the warning sounded that the ship had already dropped below the range of nine of the fourteen planetary batteries locked onto it. Kalaf strained with all his might, forcing his body to counter the mysterious power he could feel acting upon it.

His finger touched the button, and depressed it.

Outside, there was an enormous flash of light, and thunder reverberated down the valley as the king sized planetary batteries opened fire. The ship within the viewer was suddenly sheathed in flame, as the beams of three defensive batteries converged upon it. The vessel disappeared within the maelstrom of energy, which Kalaf knew that no vessel ever made could withstand. For five beats of his heart, the unknown vessel flamed; and then it dropped below the range of the planetary batteries. Kalaf turned to look out of the side window of his tower, and could spy the fireball as it arced down towards the horizon.

And then it was done.

"Impact," the defensive mind told him."All power output on the vessel had been neutralized by the batteries. Deceleration during final descent: none. Terminal velocity at impact: 900 anth per sil. Final inertial stress on hull: sixty gravities. Deformation of structure: absolute."

Kalaf shook his head. No one could have survived that.

Still, an inspection squad would have to be dispatched immediately to examine the wreckage. He saw to that, and then returned to his pylon and made himself comfortable, to await the inevitable call from the citadel. If he was lucky, he would still live tomorrow. But his employ with T'ath, he knew, was forever ended.

Briefly, he wondered who, or what had really been aboard that ship. There would be very little left to examine. They would probably never know.

He was still wondering, when the com link from the citadel chirped for his attention.

The amazing cocoon about them relaxed slowly, and then disappeared altogether, and Charlie immediately sat up. Kippy was there, next to him, and Adrian, and Ricky, and all the others. Everyone was rising to a sitting position now, everyone looked okay.

Unbelievably so.

"We need to get out now," Max said, getting to his knees. What light there was came mostly from a little glowing orb that floated above Pacha, and moved as he and Mike did, like a tethered dog moved with its owner.

The rest of the light came from a rent in the hull, through which rose-colored sunlight entered, almost timidly. Charlie looked up; they could not stand at all. The once high overhead was now squashed down to within four feet of them - the diameter of the magic cocoon that Max and Pacha and Billy and Will had somehow woven all about them, protecting them all from the incredible forces that had pummeled the ship, and then the impact with the ground at the end of their final fall from the sky.

Max got to his feet, and moved, bent low, to the great split in the hull and looked outside. "Geez. We're at the bottom of a whopping big hole. I think the sides aren't too steep to climb, though. Let's get going, before someone gets here."

Charlie felt the front of his shirt move, and opened it to look inside. "Okay, Murcha?"

"Yes, Charlie. I am still amazed that we survived our fall from orbit. The mathematics would seem to indicate the impossibility of this event."

"Mathematics doesn't take into account Max, Pacha, and our two spirit friends, either," Kippy said, smiling.

"Apparently so. moment while I go and check on Illia." The little cylinder zipped over to where Ricky was getting to his knees, and Ricky grinned and let the little blue orb out of his own shirt.

"I think it's love," Kippy said, smiling at Charlie. He got to his knees and reached for Charlie, who responded by opening his arms and allowing him in.

"We made it," Kippy breathed, holding Charlie tightly against him.

Charlie nodded, kissed Kip's cheek, and then his lips when he turned his head. For a long second it was just the two of them, alone together...and then Charlie felt a hand land gently on his shoulder. "Happy time later, fellas," Max said urgently. "Please, guys, we have to get away from the ship before these Moth boys get here." He turned and waved a hand at Murcha and Illia. "You two come here. I have the deepest pockets of any of us, so you two will be safest with me."

The two shipminds flew to Max, one landing in each hand. "You'll still be able to talk to each other, okay?" And then he stuffed them into his front pockets, where they disappeared, leaving not even bulges in the clothing that Max wore. That there was some magic to those pockets, Charlie had learned a long time ago. He had seen the most amazing things go into and come out of them since he had known the elf.

Charlie nodded, and he and Kippy got to their feet and joined the line moving to the rent in the hull.

Once outside, Charlie had to gape at the depression the remains of the ship lay within. It had been soft earth, fortunately, and had been blasted away from the point of impact. Charlie turned to look at the flattened remains of the dark hull, and could see then that the bulges and protuberances that had once covered the steel had all been reduced to random points of upraised metal, like a gentle sea of tiny wavelets frozen in time. The outer hull had melted, probably from the thermal energy content of the weapons directed at them, since Charlie knew that the materials science of the the starfaring cultures produced hull materials strong enough to withstand the heat of a normal reentry. Max had done his best to deflect the energy bombardment, but a good portion had still leaked through. It was enough to let him see that, without the protective cocoon created about them by their power users and Billy and Will, they would all now be toast in the literal sense of the word.

The crater was still hot, and they scrambled up the sides as quickly as they could, feeling the heat through the soles of their shoes. At the top, Mike turned, and Pacha waved a hand behind them, erasing any footprints they might have left behind. He continued to do this as they crossed the shattered remains of a once grassy field and reached a flat area of bare rock at the base of a massive hill.

"Quick head count," Max said, turning and rapidly making eye contact with everyone.

"I can't feel things," Frit whispered then, giving his head a little shake.

"Me, either," Pip said, looking panicked. "Am I damaged?"

"You are fine," Pacha said, from within the open vee of Mike's jacket. "There is some form of dampening field here that suppresses Ka. It is strong enough to suppress your abilities completely. My own are greatly diminished, as are Max's, I suspect."

"I got a slight headache, if that's what you mean," Max said grimly. He made a show of patting his pockets, and then grinned. "Never any aspirin around when you need it."

Charlie looked at Pacha, and then at Max. "How serious is this?"

"Less than you might think, Charlie. These Moth don't want their own kind to use magic around them, so they suppress it around places they want to keep secret. But it's geared to squash the abilities of someone at their level, not mine. Some of my stuff don't feel like it works as well, but I can still do plenty." Max turned to smile at Pacha. "You, too. I can feel it."

Frit touched Charlie's arm. "This must be what it feels like to be human." The last word was said with such trepidation that Charlie could not help but to smile.

He laid his hand atop Frit's and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's not so bad. We'll watch out for you."

Pip came up beside his boyfriend, and they rubbed shoulders together. "Awful," Pip whispered. Frit nodded, but then smiled at Charlie. "We'll be okay."

"I sense their approach," Pacha warned.

Gort had been standing silently at the edge of the crowd; now he moved in among them. "Quickly. Everyone place a hand upon me. Max, you must transport us away from here. I will serve to focus your energies so that you can handle the entire group with your diminished capacity." He turned, and pointed to a barely visible ledge far up the side of the hill. "There is a cave there, at the back of that ledge. Once inside, Pacha will have sufficient power to camouflage us from Moth sensory devices. But we must go now, before they are in range."

Everyone pressed close to the robot, and laid a hand upon the cool material of its skin. This was the first time Charlie had touched Gort; whatever he was made of, it did not feel like steel. The skin gave slightly, but felt hard underneath. But it certainly did not feel like a machine, and while it looked like one, Charlie knew that the container bearing Will and Billy was something else altogether. Something alive.

Max was last to lay a hand on Gort. He closed his eyes, and Charlie felt the odd, fluttery motion of an elf transport. The world around him blinked, and then he was staring at a rock wall two feet away from him.

Mike backed away from Gort and turned to the opening of the cave, and Pacha leaned out of the vee of his jacket and made motions with his tiny fingers. The rough circle of light wavered, and dimmed considerably. They could still see out outside, but it now the world beyond looked liked late evening, with the soon-to-be-dark layer of twilight fast approaching.

Charlie released Kippy and moved to the opening and looked out. Despite the reduced daylight reaching them, it was still mid-afternoon, and he could see for some distance beyond. The great hill they were now high up the side of was part of a mountain range that grew precipitously to their left, while descending in height to foothills off to their right. The Moth ship had dropped at the edge of a wide field that extended for some miles away from them, sloping gently downward, to a great plain below.

"Do not pass beyond the edge of the opening," Pacha cautioned him, "or you will become detectable."

Charlie nodded. Kippy joined him, and the opening was wide enough for Ricky and Adrian to stand to one side of them, and Frit and Pip to the other. Mike grinned and found a large stone to sit upon, and began to absently rub Pacha's head. Max went and sat with them, while Gort stood nearby.

There was a flicker of motion outside, down on the plain, and then another, and another; and soon five large conveyances floated rapidly up to the grassy field from the plain below and landed near the shattered remains of the starship. The conveyances were cylindrical with rounded ends and open tops, and Charlie could see a half dozen Moth inside each one. As soon as the craft touched ground those inside leaped up and over the side, spread their wings, and settled easily to the ground.

Charlie could see now that each Moth was dressed in dark armor with helmet. As they alit, each one reached back over his shoulder and pulled a rifle weapon of some kind from a clamp on the back of the suit. The men quickly spread out and surrounded the downed space vessel.

"Look like they know what they're doin'," Mike said softy, coming to stand behind Charlie and Kippy and looking over their shoulders.

Charlie looked back, beyond Mike, and saw Pacha sitting atop the rock, quietly talking to Max. Gort also seemed to be in the conversation. Briefly, he wondered what they could be discussing.

"What to do next," Mike said, as if reading his mind. "We can't just sit here, after all."

Charlie nodded, and turned back to watch the Moth below. Two of them were now sliding carefully down the embankment of the crater, and approaching the rent in the hull. One was sweeping the ground before them with a small device he held in one hand, while the other kept his rifle at the ready.

"Good thing Pacha erased our footprints," Kippy said.

Mike grunted. "And not just them. He erased our presence."

"What's that mean?" Adrian asked. "What did we leave behind besides our footprints?"

Mike grinned. "Hell. Hair, skin cells, fibers from our clothing, material from the soles of our shoes.. People shed like crazy as they move around. Pacha wiped the interior of the ship, and our trails away from it. The moth will not know that anyone left that ship alive."

Ricky grinned. "They're gonna be confused as hell. No one on board, no ship mind - it'll be like they were talkin' to ghosts when the ship was up in space."

"They won't be fooled," Mike countered. "They'll know that someone real damn sneaky was aboard that ship. That they can't figure out how it was done will irritate them no end. But they'll be on the lookout for us, just the same."

"Are you always this positive?" Kippy asked, just a little acidly.

Mike shrugged. "I'm a realist. Kip. And I've been out here a lot longer than you. Even though these Moth are power users like Pacha, it's all science to them. They don't believe in magic, and they're going to have a hard time grasping that there are power users out there that are better at it than they are." He grinned, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Gort. "Or that there's beings like them that can come over from...wherever it was they came over from."

"I touched him," Frit said then, meaning Gort. "He doesn't feel like something artificial. Like a machine. He feels like something alive."

Pip nodded. "And I could sense them there, within, like they were both alive."

Charlie shrugged. "They are alive, in some sense, I guess. The patterns that were their living minds have remained, so in that respect, they can't be dead. They're just changed." He sighed. "I know enough to know I'm out of my depth with a lot of this stuff."

Kippy nodded. "We take a lot of stuff on faith, don't we, Charlie?"

Charlie considered that, and smiled. "I guess we do. Faith in our friends, faith in the people we love and care about." He smiled at the group. "Faith in all of you."

Frit suddenly sniffed, and then Pip. Mike rolled his eyes, but clapped Charlie softly on the shoulder. "You're a one of a kind, Charlie."

Kippy sighed, and leaned up against Charlie's shoulder. "Now you see why I love him so much."

Charlie felt his face warm, but draped an arm around Kip and pulled him closer. 'Same here, Kip. Same here."


Charlie turned, and saw Max waving at them. He cast a last look towards the Moth. The two that had descended into the crater holding the ship were now edging carefully into the rent in its side. He grinned. They were not going to be happy with what they didn't find.

The group of boys walked back to Max and crowded around him, the stone that Pacha was perched upon, and Gort. Any sense that they were now beyond hope had receded from them. Whatever came next, they would handle it.

"What's up? Charlie asked. Murcha and Illia now floated in the air nearby.

"I think this place is a forza lair, Charlie," Murcha said. "We may be able to use it to our advantage."

Charlie looked to the rear of the cave, and only then realized that it did end just behind them. It gradually darkened, and looked to end; but he realized now that it was a tunnel, and led back into the rock and out of sight.

Kippy groaned. "What are forza? And don't tell me they're horrible monsters with claws and fangs."

"They have wings, too," Max said quietly. "And can fly."

"And they are extremely belligerent," Pacha added. "They do not like visitors."

"They are native to Mufa'alatra," Murcha explained. "and are fairly intelligent. They can learn simple procedures, and the trained ones are quite loyal to T'ath. He uses them as an extra lair of protection at his citadel. They have considerable night senses, and can detect even thermally shielded trespassers. This appears to be a lair of wild forza, so they will be less dangerous in that they have not been trained to fight; but at the same time, they will view us as trespassers in their domain, and will attack us on sight."

Kippy gaped. "You mean they really are monsters with claws and fangs?"

Max grinned. "Yep. Fortunately, they're only three feet tall."

"But do not let their small size relax your guard," Murcha inserted. "They are immensely strong flyers, and two of them working together have been known to carry off an adult katzel from the fields below."

Max's grin widened. "That's the local equivalent of a cow, in case you're interested."

Ricky frowned. "You seem awfully happy about all this, Max."

The elf shrugged. "I have a knack with animals, too. And a bunch of immensely strong monsters with sharp fangs and powerful claws are a heck of a lot easier to deal with than a mob of armed and hostile Moth." He smiled sweetly. "Don't you think?"

Kippy suddenly tilted his head back and laughed. Charlie stared at him a moment, and then smiled. "Something we missed?"

Kippy turned the smile on him. "I was just thinking of the elfdream we were having when all this started. Those big wolf creatures were charging us, and Frit and Pip waved their magic fingers and said nice doggie, and then the poor creatures fell all over us trying to love us."

Charlie laughed, remembering.

"That's a real power," Frit said. "Makes animals like you." He grinned. "It comes down from my gramp's line."

Max nodded. "Yup. Everybody's pets love me."

Adrian slowly shook his head. "You're not thinking of enlisting these forza creatures in our cause, are you?"

Max shrugged. "If I can get them to leave us alone long enough for us to get through this cave, that will make me happy."

"Actually, they are caverns," Illia informed them. "They were formed by water. Murcha and I have been imaging them using ultrasound, and they go back some distance and then downward, and then turn and follow this range upslope for quite some distance. As that is the way we wish to go to reach the citadel, this will be an excellent avenue for covert movement."

Pacha gave a very human nod of his head. "Hiding our group from Moth sensors will be far easier down here than out in the open. The intervening earth will greatly enhance my ability to perform this task with a minimum of power, leaving me able to perform other tasks as well. Out in the open, with my reduced abilities, it will be all I can do to hide so many of us."

"That's good enough for me," Mike said. "If Pach says it will help, it will help."

"As long as it doesn't get us all killed," Ricky said.

Adrian turned and sighed at his boyfriend. "If I didn't love you so much, I think I might hit you right now."

Ricky looked surprised, and then sheepish. "Sorry. Just the worrier in me." He reached out and pulled Adrian closer. "Hit me all you want. Just be gentle, and I can take it."

Adrian sighed, and grinned as he was pulled into a kiss.

Max rolled his eyes, and looked at Pacha, as if for help. "Aw, Geez!"

Once down into the darkness, Max and Pacha lit their way, each being followed along by invisibly tethered glowing orbs. The tunnel widened as they descended, and stalactites and stalagmites appeared - icicles of stone hanging from the roof of the cavern, often with opposing, inverted brothers poking up from the rocky floor beneath them. In some cases the two had joined into columns, and in other places there were mounds of multicolored rubble on the floor of the cavern, evidence that one of the stalactites had broken off and crashed to pieces below. The colors were fascinating, muted in the less than brilliant lights from the orbs, and tended to run in streaks and streams throughout the hanging stones around them.

"Dissolved minerals," Illia explained from within Max's left pocket, when Frit noted the beautiful striations in the rock formations. "This place was formed by water, carrying dissolved minerals, and carving its way mostly through limestone. It would truly be a beautiful place were it not home to such creatures as these forza."

Murcha made a surprised sound from within Max's right pocket. "You understand beauty?"

"Why...yes. Don't you?"

For a moment there was no answer; and then Murcha made a soft but pleasant sound. "I think I am beginning to."

Charlie grinned at that, but his next comment was lost when the sudden sound of giant wings came to them. The group stopped as one, and closed together automatically.

"I wish I had that sword from the elfdream now," Kippy told Charlie, pressing against him. "I'd feel a lot safer."

"I wouldn't," Charlie whispered back. "Neither of us knows how to use one."

Kippy gave his shoulder small smack, but didn't say anything more.

The sounds grew louder, and then multiplied. Charlie thought he saw motion just beyond the edge of the bubble of light that surrounded them, but when he looked, there was nothing there. Then another flicker of movement, somewhere else, and again, when he turned his head, there was nothing to be seen. But the sounds came from all around them now, and that could only mean one thing: they were being surrounded.

"Problem," Max said then. "My magic that makes animals likes us isn't going to work here. These ain't animals, they're people. Just really primitive ones. But they're too intelligent for animal magic."

Charlie sighed at that. What else could go wrong?

Somewhere out in the darkness there was a thunderous crash, and Charlie jumped, along with all the others. Then another sound, even louder than the first one.

"Stalactites, hitting the floor," Ricky guessed. "They're breaking them off, for some reason."

Max suddenly raised his hands. Something exploded not ten feet in front of them, and Charlie caught a glimpse of a brief burst of fire amidst a shower of sparks, as though whatever had exploded had impacted an invisible wall around them. There was another explosion, and then a chain of them, as rocks the size of Charlie's head impacted the invisible barrier that Max had placed around them. Charlie grabbed Kippy and pulled him down, and they dropped to their knees as a rain of fire began, with first tens, and then hundreds of the rocky missiles bursting against Max's shield.

The noise was incredible, the brilliance of the explosions so bright that Charlie had to close his eyes lest he be dazzled. He and Kippy held each other as the barrage increased in its fury, to the point where Charlie just could not believe that so many missiles could be thrown, so quickly.

He was ware of movement then, within their own bubble of safety, and he opened one eye just enough to see what was happening. It was Billy and Will, in Gort. moving to the front of their group. The figure of the robot went right up to Max's barrier, and suddenly lifted its arms up high.

A pulse of white light burst forth from the robot's body and raced away in all directions, and in an instant the entire cavern was filled with the light of day. The barrage stopped instantly, and Charlie opened his eyes and looked around them.

In every direction, seemingly frozen in the act of doing something, were small, manlike creatures, with two arms and two legs, and a head, and great, dark wings. Some of the creatures held rocks in their hands, some had their wings open, and others had them pulled in tightly behind them. There looked to be several hundred of the creatures, and their resemblance to the gargoyles that adorned churches and cathedrals back home was almost eerie. The dark eyes of all the creatures were fixed upon Gort, his arms upraised, and certainly a fearsome sight in the bright new light that filled the cavern.

The brief moment of frozen time suddenly ended. Those forza that held rocks suddenly dropped them; those with their wings spread suddenly made use of them; and those with their wings pulled in thrust them suddenly outward. And then, en masse, the creatures turned and fled. The noise was again incredible, as hundreds of sets of wings beat at the air of the cavern. The creatures all went one way, deeper into the cavern, along the route that they were traveling themselves.

And then they were gone. Echoes of their wings reverberated throughout the cavern for a moment longer, faded, and then died away.

Gort lowered his arms then, and Max stepped up to him and laid a hand against the robot's side. "I hate to tell ya this, but I think you scared them."

Frit and Pip both hooted, and slapped their thighs in amusement. "You think?" Frit asked, laughing.

"Sure scared me!" Pip added.

Charlie blew out a breath, and rose to his feet, pulling Kippy upright with him. "You okay?"

"Of course. The way you wrapped me up in your arms, nothing could get at me."

Charlie grinned. "Oops. Sorry to be so clingy."

Kippy sighed, and leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Just you shut up, Charlie Boone."

Mike and Pacha came forward, and Pacha looked up at Gort. "Just the right action, at just the right moment."

"It was Max that gave me the clue," the combined voices of Billy and Will returned. "Once we knew they were people, and primitive ones, it seemed to follow that they might be awed, or even terrified, by having night turned to day by something that looks like Gort."

"Nice trick, too," Max said, waving at the almost sunlit cavern. "Awful lot of light here now."

"Interesting tactic, throwing rocks at us," Mike said. "I kinda expected them to do a blooie rush right at us."

"They're all too familiar with the range and deadliness of Moth weapons," Murcha suggested. "Much safer to throw stones from the darkness than to attack directly."

"They looked like gargoyles," Ricky said, shaking his head. "Creepy."

"They did, didn't they?" Adrian mused. He smiled. "This has certainly been a Halloweeny Halloween."

Charlie and Kippy both laughed, and Kippy reached out to pat Adrian's arm. "They keep getting better, too."

Adrian shrugged, but nodded. "Somehow, I'm still having fun. I mean, it's all scary, but I just have this feeling that we're gonna make it through."

Kippy smiled. "Maybe you're getting some Skwish, too."

Ricky slid his hand up Adrian's shoulder and rubbed the back of his neck. Adrian turned, and Ricky smiled at him, and offered a little pucker of his lips. Adrian sighed, leaned forward, and offered a brief kiss. "That's all for now," he whispered, pulling back. "I don't want to get Max after us again, complaining about happy time."

"I heard that," Max said, turning and smiling at them. "I think it's great that you guys are all in love. I just think you could put some of the stuff on hold until we get back home."

"I think we should be moving on, while we can," Pacha said. "The sooner we get through this cavern, the better."

They started off again, Max leading, with Gort just behind him. Charlie and the other boys fell in behind them, and Mike and Pacha brought up the rear.

For the next hour they moved along at a good pace, without being disturbed. The light that Gort had cast within the cavern stayed with them, and the way ahead remained bright and easy to see. The floor of the cavern was smooth, almost polished in places, and suggested the movement of a lot of water at some past time. The rock formations around them all glistened with moisture, and only seemed to increase in their beauty the deeper into the cavern they went.

Finally, Max raised an arm, and they stopped.

"What's up?" Charlie asked.

"We're being watched. Couple of forza up high, there near the top of that column."

Mike came up, bearing Pacha. "Pach has an idea."

"Gort, would you look towards that column, and raise your arms?"

The robot did so, facing the distant rock indicated, and raising his arms above his head.

Pacha made small motions within Mike's jacket, out of sight of watching eyes.

Ahead of Gort, a great, black form sprang into being. It was neither a bird nor a bat, but something in between, with dark, leathery skin, and large, slitted eyes. It spread its wings with sudden vigor, and leaped into the air, flapping mightily, and headed straight for the rocky column.

In the distance, they heard two strange cries, and a pair of forza detached themselves from the back side of the column and arrowed away into the depths of the cavern. The great black shape gave a brief chase to hurry them along, and then returned to settle to the floor ahead of Gort, where it vanished into nothingness.

"If they had any doubts before that Gort might be a supernatural being, they have surely been laid to rest," Pacha said, sounding just a little smug.

Mike looked down at the little koala. "That's fine, if they just stay out of our hair. But what if they get the idea that he's an evil spirit, and has to be destroyed?"

Pacha scratched his furry chin, and looked thoughtful. "Then we will deal with that when it comes."

They moved on, and traveled another two hours before stopping to rest and eat. Max made them up some snacks - little sandwiches and some cookies, and produced a large bucket of cool, clean water, which they used to fill the metal cups he gave them. The food was refreshing, and the water better than any that Charlie had ever had before.

"How do you do that?" he asked the elf, after they were finished. "That was some mighty good eating."

Max shrugged. "Aw, there's organic goop everywhere you go. You just gotta rearrange it into stuff the looks and tastes good."

Kippy's eyes widened, and he inspected the floor of the cavern at his feet. "Organic goop? From here, in this cave?"

"Cavern," Charlie corrected, automatically.

Kippy cast a brief glare at him, and then returned to Max. "What we just ate all came from organic stuff you found here in the cavern?"

"Sure. I'm a great cook. It was good, wasn't it?"

Kippy nodded. "I just don't...I just don't want to think that what we just ate was made from reconstituted forza poop, or something like that."

Max drew back, and placed a hand on his chest. His eyes sparkled, and Charlie had to grin.

"Now, would I do that to you?" Max asked Kippy. "I ate the stuff, too. Think I don't have standards?"

Kippy watched the elf a moment, and then nodded. "You do have standards. That's exactly what I'm afraid of."

Max laughed, and Charlie laughed, and Kippy just sighed at the burden of it all. "Okay, laugh. But if I sprout wings overnight, I'll know just who to come to."

They moved on, and made another three hours before Max called another halt. They were passing through a small, natural hollow within the cavern, and a semicircular depression in one wall easily large enough to hold their entire group comfortably now presented itself.

"We'll stop here for the night," Max decided. "We get inside this hollow, and we only have the front of it to defend."

"Is it night?" Mike asked, looking around them. "Sure can't tell it."

"The light will stay with us for as long as we need it, "Gort offered. "You cannot tell the time based on what you see."

Charlie dug his cell phone out of his pocket and checked the time. It said 3:34 a.m., but that was Earth time, and had no meaning here. But then he frowned, and looked again. It was still 3:34 a.m. on Saturday night, according to his cell. Did that mean that it was still the middle of the same night back on Earth? Was that all the time that had passed since they had left? Four hours? How could that be?

Max saw him looking, and nodded. "Told ya I'd take care of no one missing you guys. Relax, Charlie, okay?"

Charlie nodded, and placed his phone back into his pocket. He trusted Max, definitely.

Max created some pads for them to lay on, and Charlie and Kippy put theirs next to each other and snuggled together. Only then did Charlie feel how tired he really was. A lot had happened to them since leaving Earth, and this was the first real rest they had had. He pulled Kippy close, and kissed him.

"Are you having fun?"

Kippy sighed. "Oddly enough, I am. You'd think I'd be scared out of my mind to be uncounted light years from home, in a cave...a cavern, full of monsters, on an alien planet, and making my way towards a castle that makes the wicked witch's look like a gingerbread house. But I am having fun." Kippy gently rubbed his cheek against Charlie's. "Everything is fun, when I'm with you."

Charlie closed his eyes, and breathed in the scent of Kippy's skin, felt the warmth of his face near. "That goes for me, too. Doing anything with you is what makes it special for me."

He felt the brush of Kippy's lips, and kissed them. "G'night, Kip. I love you."

"Oh, Charlie. I love you, too. Sleep well."

And he did.

"I don't know what to make of it," Max was saying, when Charlie opened his eyes again. Kippy was still against him, and stirring now, too. Charlie smiled, gave him a brief and affectionate kiss, and sat up.

"Don't know what to make of what?"

Max turned to look at him. "Well, hi, sleepy head."

Kippy sat up too. "Is it morning?"

"It's about seven hours later, by your reckoning," Max said. "But I think it's still light outside this cave right now." He held up a finger and pointed it at Charlie, as if to say, I wanna call this dump a cave, I'm calling this dump a cave!

Charlie grinned. "Still light outside, huh?"

Murcha spoke up from Max's pocket. "Mufa'alatra revolves more slowly than does your world, Charlie. A day here is about forty Earth hours long."

"Ugh," Kippy said, sitting up then. "I'll bet the kids really hate school here." He looked at Charlie. "Can you imagine a twelve hour school day?"

"You see the stone thing?" Frit asked, from where he was sitting beside Pip. Both boys were sipping from metal cups, from which tiny curls of steam were rising.

When Charlie looked questioningly at them, Pip stuck out an arm and pointed with his finger. "There."

Charlie turned back to look outside their little hollow. Standing on the stone floor about twenty feet away, was a stone in the shape of the letter 'X'. It was about two feet in height, and looked from its coloration to have been quickly hewn from a stalagmite. The base of it was still roughly round, allowing the 'X' to easily stand upright.

"Where did that come from?"

"It was there when we woke up," Max said.

Charlie frowned at that. Max had placed a shield across the opening of their hollow, so there had been no need for anyone to stand guard. But Charlie was a little surprised to learn that no other safeguard had been set up to warn them of movement close to the shield. But Max laughed when he mentioned it.

"I don't know if you've been looking, but there's all sorts of little fuzzy critters, and some lizard things, that run all around the floor of this place. If I set a watch for motion, I wouldn't have got a wink of sleep." The elf waved a hand at their invisible shield. "Nothing's coming through our defenses, Charlie. If it was a solid steel wall, ten inches thick instead, would you feel like you'd need to watch the other side?"

"Well --" The elf had him there. he grinned. "Okay, I'm done."

"Someone sneaked up and put it there, huh?" Mike said, glancing around the cavern. "Well, not even sneaked, since it's so light in here now. We'd have seen 'em coming if we'd been awake. So they must have realized we were all asleep."

"I wasn't asleep," Gort said then. "And I was standing, just as I am now, faced out, all night long."

"And you didn't see anything?" Mike asked, looking astonished.

"I didn't say that. Two forza brought this thing along about halfway through your sleep period, set it down, and ran like the devil was chasing them. I did not feel it was cause to wake anyone. You were all so tired."

Pacha waved a hand from within Mike's jacket. "It is not important how it got here. What I wish to know is what it means."

"Could be a warning," Ricky said. "An ex like that might mean, 'don't go any farther'."

Adrian stood up and approached the barrier, squinting at the object outside. "I know what it is."

Ricky's gaze followed him. "Well, don't keep it a secret."

Adrian pointed. "Did you notice the round ball between the upper arms of the ex?"

Charlie leaned forward like everyone else. Sure enough, a round ball was at the base of the valley formed by the two upper arms of the statue.

Adrian turned to Gort. "Raise your arms again, like you did yesterday."

The robot's arms went up again, held outward at a small angle, and Charlie saw it immediately.

It was a statue of Gort.

Max grinned. "Well, well, well. You made an impression on these folks, I'd say."

Pacha offered a soft chik-chik-chik. "That hopefully means they will allow us to pass through unmolested."

Charlie walked over to where Frit and Pip were sitting, and still sipping from their cups. He looked around then, and saw cups and small plates next to everybody. "What are you guys drinking?"

"Warme chocolademelk," Frit said, grinning.

"Hot chocolate," Pip translated. "Mmm!"

Charlie grinned, and looked over at Kippy. "I guess we missed breakfast."

"It's there!" Pip said, pointing.

Charlie and Kip both turned, and there were two steaming cups next to their sleeping pads, and two small plates of what looked like omelet.

"Eat," Max said, grinning. "So that we can get going."

Charlie and Kippy returned to sit on their pads to eat breakfast. The chocolate was wonderful, thick and rich, and the eggs better even than the omelets that Charlie's mom made, which was saying something.

"Wow," Kippy said, when they were through eating, gazing up at Max and patting his belly. "Best organic goop I ever tasted."

Max grinned, held up his hand, and blew on his fingers. "These boys got so much talent they're hot. Sorry, no autographs, please."

Everyone laughed, and stood to get ready to leave. Max simply made all their trash go away, and the cups and the plates and the sleeping pads. He could bring them all back later, when and where they needed them. Magic certainly was nice to have, as long as it was in the right hands to use, and had the right heart behind it.

"What should we do with this thing?" Ricky asked, after Max had dropped the barrier and they had emerged from the hollow. The boy dropped a hand on the statue of Gort, then bent and carefully tried to lift it. "Whew! I sure wouldn't want to have to carry it!"

Pacha smiled, and waved his fingers at the stone statue. A small creaking sound came from it, and then it rapidly shrank before their eyes, until it was no more then three inches tall. "Get it, Mike. We may have a use for it later."

Mike grinned, retrieved the tiny statue, and stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket. "Just don't let the size come back while I got it."

Pacha gave a little shake of his head, but his eyes held a smile. "I believe we are ready to go on."

They moved on. Three hours later, they had seen no one, and heard nothing. So they were surprised when they came around a large stone column, and there was another statue before them. It was the same size as the first one, and looked to be made from the same stone. But where the first statue had scarcely been more than an 'ex', this one was more polished, more detailed. There were accurate hands and feet at the terminus of each arm, and the round head even had ear pads and a visor etched into it, just like the ones that Gort had on his own head.

"Amazing," Max said, his eyes moving slowly around the cavern. "Bet they started this one at the same time as the first one, and that's why it has more detail."

"We should definitely take this one along," Pacha said, waving his hands at it. "It is a true work of art."

In just a moment, it was a tiny work of art, and Mike had stuffed it into his other jacket pocket.

They continued on for two more hours, and then stopped for a rest and to eat.

"Murcha?" Max asked. "How are you and Illia doin' with figuring out how big this place is?"

"We have continued to image it as we move along," came the reply. "It is quite vast, and we are not yet halfway to the opposite end."

Max frowned. "Rats. The longer we do this, the more chance the Moth have of finding us. Their doodad-sensor-things are really good. Bet they found that cave opening near the crash site, and I wouldn't be surprised if they checked it out."

"This far away from the opening, I could not continue to shield it while also shielding us here," Pacha said. "I did shake it up a little before withdrawing the shield, causing a partial collapse at one point, which I then aged by fifty planetary years. It will seem to anyone who investigates that no one could have passed through in a very long time."

Max grinned. "Did I ever say I'm glad you're on our side?"

Pacha laughed. "And pleased to be here, too."

They went on after eating, and walked for another two hours. Max continued to walk point, with Gort just behind him, while Mike and Pacha held down the rear, and everyone else formed the middle. They were moving between a line of columns now, so evenly spaced and regular that it looked like they had been set there on purpose. But all were clearly natural in origin, and Charlie again had to smile at the sometimes precision of nature's eye. This section of the cavern was beautiful, and somewhere ahead they could hear what sounded like a waterfall.

They rounded the last columns, and Max suddenly stopped. Ahead of them, once again, was another statue. Or so Charlie thought.

So he was surprised when a pair of wings quietly spread behind the statue, making it seem larger, and one arm came up, and a clawed hand pointed at them. Pointed at Gort.

The face of the creature, not the prettiest thing Charlie had ever seen, worked in silence a moment, and then the slit of a mouth opened.

"Injit. Paolu bree. Injit."

Max patted his front pocket. "You understand him?" he asked, of Murcha.

"There is no record that these creatures speak, or have a language. T'ath has kept them classified as animals. It is a new idea for me to view them as people."

"I thought that animals were protected under your laws here," Kippy said. "I thought you guys couldn't do anything to disturb their habitats."

"Such laws existed in Arpathant space, and still do in other surrounding empires. The Moth have not seen fit to extend that rule of law to the creatures that inhabit their own worlds."

"Wow," Mike said, shaking his head. "Hard to believe that the Arpies were more decent folk in some areas than the Moth. That really drops the Moth low in my book."

"Big surprise," Charlie said, agreeing. "The Moth don't even seem to like each other much. I'm not that startled to see they don't care about anyone else."

The creature was looking back and forth at them as they spoke, but had then focused on first Mike, and then Charlie, as each spoke. "Moth?" That there was distaste in the way the word was said was apparent.

Charlie indicated their group, and shook his head. "No Moth."

The creature stared at him, then pointed at Gort. "Parva. I'la diltra pan'u."

"He speaks the Moth tongue," Murcha said then. "Havra mak'la semur Moth."

The forza started at the voice from nowhere, and backed up a step.

Max dug in his front pocket, and produced Murcha, who immediately spoke to the forza in Moth again. The creature's eyes widened, and Charlie had to smile at that. Surprise was a universal language in itself.

"I just informed him that we are not friends of the Moth. He had said that he had hoped that 'the great one' - I assume he refers to Gort - was not here on a mission for the Moth."

The forza spoke again. The language sounded odd, coming from the gargoyle's mouth, and Charlie had to marvel all over again at how different people could be.

"He wants to know why we are here, and where we are bound," Murcha translated.

Max looked at Pacha, who looked uncertain. Max shrugged. "If they are not friendly with T'ath's bunch, maybe they'll be sympathetic to our cause." He looked down at Murcha again. "Tell him we're going to the citadel to see T'ath."

The shipmind duly passed along the information. The forza looked alarmed then, and took another step away from them. This time there seemed a hostile note in its voice when it spoke once more.

"It wants to know why we go there. He says T'ath is not to be trusted."

Max laughed at that. "Tell him we're going there to settle a few things with the guy."

Again, Murcha offered a string of alien words. The forza looked uncertain, and its wings fluttered nervously as it spoke once more.

"It asks what things."

Kippy gave out a big sigh, and stepped forward. "Oh, you people." He raised a hand to the forza and pointed at it. "T'ath."

"T'ath?" The creature gazed uncertainly at Kippy's hand. Kippy nodded, raised his other hand, formed a fist, and then slapped it with a resounding smack into the first one. Then he allowed the stricken arm to slowly fall to the side, and made a sound like a body striking the floor. Then he grinned again, and pointed at the downed hand. "T'ath."

The forza blinked its eyes, and then its mouth gaped opened in a grin, revealing both upper and lower canines that certainly qualified as fangs in Charlie's book. The forza pointed at Kippy's downed hand, and made a little buzzing sound, that just had to have humor as its source. "T'ath?"

Kippy looked satisfied, and nodded. "Yes."

The forza stepped closer again and looked at Murcha. "Onda. Trebu keeli'a nobit T'ath." Then the creature raised a hand, and pointed at Kippy. "Hlla im'thi naruat con'vi mibulta."

Murcha gave out a tiny, pleased yip, which sounded just so gay to Charlie's ears, issuing forth as it did in such a powerful and normally sinister voice, that he couldn't help but to grin.

"He says that his name is Onda," Murcha translated. "He's second leader of his people - I guess that means there is more than one - and he asks how they can help the fist of Kippy to strike T'ath."

Max snorted, but it was in pleasure. "Aw, great! Tell him we need to get to the citadel, and to find a way to get inside."

Murcha sent the message over, and Onda again looked pleased. His reply this time carried a note of excitement with it, and when he turned and waved a wing as if for them to follow, his meaning seemed clear.

"He said to follow him. He says there is a way inside the citadel. He wants to help."

Max nodded. "I get a good feeling from this guy. We'll go with him." Max and the others started off after Onda.

Charlie moved over to Kippy, and put his arm around him. "Way to go, tiger."

Kippy grinned. "Come on, Charlie. We'll get left behind." But his eyes said volumes of other things, and Charlie could only sigh.

Onda led their group back to where several others of his kind were waiting, and they had a hasty conference, with much growling and wagging of wing tips. But the little forza all emerged from the huddle smiling, their fangs showing, and Charlie was certain that that meant the Onda's people were going to assist them - or eat them.

They were then led deeper into the cavern, towards the sound of the waterfall, and soon came to a small village of stone homes beside a slowly moving underground river. The falls were up and behind the village, and quite impressive in the new light within the cavern. Other forza came out to look at them, and seemed reassured by Onda's presence and his positive attitude towards the visitors.

They were introduced to an obviously older forza, named Tlithi, who turned out to be first leader of the village. The color gray seemed a universal merit badge for those advancing in age, and while Tlithi still looked as strong and able as any of the forza, it seemed apparent from the gray rim fur of his wings and the gray tufts of fur at the ends of his ears, that he was getting on in years. Onda, it turned out, was his son, and would someday be first leader when Tlithi was gone.

The forza normally moved about within the cavern using a form of echo location, just as Earthly bats did. But their eyes worked much like a human's did, although their night vision was like that of a cat. Still, they were amazed and excited by the light in the cavern, and considered it a miracle to be able to see within their underground world.

"What about that?" Max whispered to Gort, during a lull in the conversation. "How long will the light last?"

"Oh, indefinitely," Gort responded. "This universe is just full of stray, unused photons. Directing some of them here is no big deal. If these people like the illumination, we'll just leave the lights on when we go. The pipeline is self-sustaining. Probably outlast the planet."

That news, when translated by Murcha, brought a round of hissing forza cheers. Charlie has never seen so many fearsome looking fangs displayed for such a good reason in his entire life. Still, it still made him shiver, just a little.

Their next stage was to plan how to get into the citadel. The stones of the mountain contained many faults, it seemed, and there were secret crevices that led up from the cavern into the maintenance areas beneath the citadel. They could be entered only by someone that could fly. Apparently, the forza that worked for T'ath were not as loyal as he believed, and the passages that had not been discovered and sealed during the construction of the citadel had not been given away by those forza that worked for him.

There was plenty of security sensory gear in the maintenance places, as there was throughout the citadel; but as the barracks for T'aths working forza was also located there, and accessible by a tunnel that led straight up to the grounds within the citadel walls, the presence of forza within would not seem out of place. The only details that needed to be worked out was how to disguise Gort and his group while they made the passage upwards.

And that was no great problem, either. Gort and Max and Pacha had worked the magic together that had fooled Kalaf into thinking that the arriving ship contained members of his own kind; and the same magic had fooled the security scans. Doing this once again would be straightforward enough, and even easier under these conditions. T'ath's primary security was set to keep unauthorized personnel from even landing on his world. The secondary systems set to watch the citadel and T'ath's landing field were somewhat simpler in nature. That, to Max, just meant that they would be easier to fool.

"The question remains, what are we going to do once we get there?" Max asked. "How are we gonna get this guy to cough up the secret information about Earth, and how are we going to make sure he doesn't try to come and mess with us again?"

Gort turned toward him then. "As I said once before, this entire scenario has already played out in several alternate realities. In those where we were successful, we employed much the same solution in each one."

"And that was?" Kippy asked.

"What's the strongest human emotion?" Billy asked.

"Love," Kippy said immediately.

Billy laughed, and Will joined him. "Okay, the second strongest emotion?"

Kippy frowned, and looked at Charlie.

"Fear, probably," Charlie said. "Fear will drive people to do things they would never normally do."

Adrian shook his head. "Isn't it an individual thing, which is the strongest?"

Billy/Will laughed. "Exactly. For humans and many other races, love and compassion for others are among the strongest emotions. But that does not seem to be true of the Moth. Their most powerful emotions seems to be...what?"

"Greed," Kippy said. "They seem to want to own everything."

"Ambition," said Ricky. He smiled at Kippy. "Your guy's cousin."

"They're paranoid," Frit said. "They don't even trust each other."

"They're scared," Pip decided. "They're scared they won't always be on top. That leads to all the other bad emotions."

Charlie nodded. "Something to that, I think."

Gort offered a joint sigh. "It's so nice working with bright people. Yes, all of those emotions are at play among the Moth. But fear is the base, the primary motivator of the Moth. So that's the one we're going to use against T'ath."

"What if he ain't the scarin' kind?" Max asked.

"He is," Gort said, assuredly. "His greatest fear is lack of control. Of not knowing everything that's going on. Of not being one step ahead of everyone else. So we're going to use that fear against him. We're going to scare T'ath like he's never been scared before."

Frit and Pip grinned at each other. "It's Halloween!"

"Trick or treat!" Pip responded.

"How are we doing this?" Ricky asked. "We don't even know what scares a Moth guy."

Max smiled, reached into his pocket, and drew forth Murcha. "Actually, we have an expert."

"Two experts," came Illia's voice, from his other pocket. "Get me out of here! I know more legends and scary things from around the galaxy than any ten other shipminds."

"I'll vouch for that," Mike said drily. "She scares the crap out of me all the time!"

Max pulled the little blue orb out of his pocket, which leapt out of his hand and flew straight at Mike. He blinked in surprise, but opened a hand and caught it.

"Aren't you a sweetie, Michael! Holding me like that so that I can work with everyone. A little higher...turn that way...there. You are an angel, dear."

Mike rolled his eyes, curled his lip, and the sigh he gave was anything but a happy one. But he held the orb up, and put a look on his face that said there would be a payback at some later date.

Their brainstorming session lasted two hours, and then they told Onda that they were ready to go.

It took two forza to lift each of them, and to carry them up through the often narrow cracks in the bedrock stone beneath the citadel. The way was tortuous and twisting, and would have been impossible to negotiate without wings. Finally, they were all gathered in a small chamber with a crack in one side, that Onda assured them led up into the lowermost regions of the citadel itself.

Kippy combed his fingers through his hair, and patted at his clothing. "That was the most insane, wild, and fun ride I have ever had."

Charlie nodded, fully agreeing. It had been a mini-adventure all its own, no doubt about it.

Kippy finished straightening his clothing, and looked around the smooth-walled chamber. "I can see that water made this. The walls look like they've been polished."

Charlie grinned. "And I know you know about polishing things."

Kippy blinked, and then laughed. "Charlie, you get horny in the strangest of places."

Charlie sighed, and pulled Kippy closer, and gently rubbed his hands down his boyfriend's backside. "It isn't where I am, Kip. It's who I'm with."

"You're with six of your mates, a giant robot, two shipminds, and a Kifta that looks like a koala," Mike said, as he passed them. "But who's counting?"

Charlie sighed, and offered Kippy a kiss, which was happily accepted.

"Don't listen to him, Charlie. He's a party pooper." Kippy smiled. "And I think he's jealous, too."

Charlie laughed. "Jealous? Of me, or of you?"

Kippy winked. "He's jealous of you, of course. You have me, right?"

Charlie nodded, and kissed Kip again. "Yep. You're right, as always."

Max waved at them, and Kippy sighed. "Let's go, Charlie. It's time to rock 'n roll."

T'ath'O'Malbas - or just T'ath to those who dealt with him - stood upon the balcony that overlooked the western valley bordering his great citadel, and watched the sun sink behind the distant mountains. The view always inspired him, the soft reddish eye of the sun taking its time to fall into the last valley between the far peaks, there to spawn a sea blood red in color, which bathed the horizon until the stars came out overhead.

Those stars were brilliant this night, winking and twinkling in the air currents that moved far above the citadel. T'ath stared at them, wondering at their secrets. Many were nearby, suns that gave life to worlds now a part of the Moth empire, and peopled with his kind, going about their business, making the universe a better place for Mothkind.

Other stars watched over worlds inhabited by lesser breeds, subject races, which the Moth demanded allegiance from, but rarely needed for anything important. Those breeds had neither the intelligence nor the technology to compete with the Moth, and that made them of no concern at all. They remained solely because there was no profit to be had in eradicating them. The worlds they inhabited were overcrowded and depleted, and the galaxy too overflowing with pristine worlds untouched by civilization of any kind to ever make the worlds of lesser breeds into tempting conquests.

Still farther away, in several directions, and beyond the expanse that was the Moth empire, were the stars of neighboring empires - peoples possessing technology that was near to what the Moth enjoyed themselves. Had those people been met when they were still expanding, still building their empires, the Moth would have considered it profitable to eliminate them. But, alas, those others had become too large by the time they were encountered, and, powerful as Moth technology happened to be, the race's numbers were insufficient to support the large-scale conflict that would now be needed to dispense with competing empires.

T'ath's eyes drifted to another area of the sky. And then, there were these stars, the stars that had once hosted the worlds of the Arpathant, another lesser breed, but one simply teeming with numbers, and who possessed a technology at a level that simply could not be discounted in the affairs of empire. The Arpathant were a self-centered breed, all of whom seemed to possess an extreme need to somehow outwit all the others. That this mentality was related to the one that the Moth operated by themselves was lost on T'ath; the motivations of the two races were worlds apart, even if the way they approached things was often similar.

And, there was now a major difference between the two species that could not be overlooked, for it was so obviously apparent to all: the Moth still inhabited their stellar empire, while the Arpathant had disappeared from theirs. The stars he could observe within the space of the former competitor's empire still hosted the very same worlds they always had; but now, all were vacant, bereft of even the tiniest reminder of their former Arpathant masters. The race, their cities, their fleet, and all their works, everywhere, had vanished as if they had never been.

A slight shudder of apprehension coursed throughout T'ath's body as he considered this. What power could have done this? What force could have so completely erased the Arpathant from existence?

There were clues, some of which T'ath had been following. It now seemed that one, in particular, had borne fruit; regarding a small world circling a star of no importance deep within the former Arpathant space, from which the desperate call of an Arpathant battlecruiser commander for a fleet to deal with a new breed discovered there had been one of the final communications sent within Arpathant space before the disappearance of the entire species.

A Moth ship sent to investigate had been handled in an unheard of manner by the inhabitants of this world, and physically evicted from orbit under penalty of destruction had they not complied. This was simply impossible to believe. The cruiser had returned, but the scout ship in which the initial contact team had landed to procure witnesses to the Arpathant incident had been lost. The crew of the cruiser had very little to report, save that the two Moth who had gone to ground had somehow been seized, and then had suddenly reappeared aboard the cruiser even as plans to rescue them were being drawn up. The cruiser had then been subjected to an incredible gravitational compression, which had only ceased when the vessel had fled and left the system

The two Moth that had landed had reported encountering power users superior in strength to themselves. Since all Moth had basically the same level of control over the forces of power management, and no other races had ever been encountered that possessed the same abilities, it had always been thought that the Moth race was unique in this respect, graced somehow by evolution to one day be masters of all the galaxy. To learn that there might be other power users around, and especially those with superior gifts, was a horrifying prospect, one that ran counter to the underlying theme of Moth culture that they would one day be masters.

T'ath's first notion had been that the two Moth that had landed on the world had been fooled in some fashion. But the eviction of the cruiser from orbit could only have been managed by a superior force...and there weren't any, that T'ath was aware of. That basic idea had forced his thinking into a new area: that perhaps the Moth had been wrong, and there were those in the galaxy with superior talents, after all. The notion was frightening, for it threatened everything that T'ath knew and believed in. Yet the disappearance of the Arpathant after a bad experience with this very same world, and then the summary handling of his own mission to investigate, suggested a new race with considerable ability.

And yet, they had no empire of their own, but had apparently been content with being a backwater world within the Arpathant domain? T'ath did not think so. The alternative was clear.: while these others might be superior power users, their level of technological proficiency was apparently too low to provide for interstellar travel as yet. The fact that they had tried to return to Mufa'alatra in T'ath's own ship seemed to prove that they had none of their own for the task.

And, still, that very act - the return of the scout ship - was frightening in itself. It could have only happened if the shipmind and every security system within the vessel was somehow compromised, which should have been flatly impossible. Unless...unless the abilities of these new power users were so much superior to the Moth's own that they reached even beyond the ability of the Moth to imagine defenses for. And that made them far too dangerous to be allowed to exist. The disappearance of the Arpathant suggested a willingness to use that power, and that meant the danger to the Moth was extreme.

T'ath had warred with himself over what to do with the knowledge he possessed. On one side, such a threat to the empire needed dealing with, and T'ath had no assurance that one man with a small fleet of ships was up to the job. Sharing the information with other powers within the empire would ensure a much larger response to the threat...but it would also mean that T'ath would lose sole possession of any profits to come from the campaign, and the idea that a competitor might in some way come to possess knowledge that he himself did not was simply unthinkable. The other half of his mind told him he must keep this information close for now, and see if the profits to come from it could be made his alone.

Whatever force had been used to erase the Arpathant was valuable beyond all measure. If T'ath could acquire that knowledge, and use it to eliminate the star empires around their own, his power and prestige would be second to none. The crew of the cruiser that had returned from that far world had been placed into information quarantine, and their families informed that they were alive and well, but nothing else. That crew would remain confined until this matter was dealt with, one way or the other. The cruiser's information storage had been cloned and then eliminated, and that meant that the knowledge of this distant world and the mysterious power users that inhabited it was his, and his alone.

He had been confident in his plans, and assured as only a Moth could be that they would bear fruit.

Until that very day, that is, when the missing scout ship had returned, apparently crewed by two of the same Moth that had previously returned on the cruiser! And that fool on the watch, Kalaf, had let it come close enough to make a dash for the surface. Fortunately, T'ath's defenses had worked as they were intended, and the craft had been destroyed. A team had been sent to inspect the remains, and T'ath had given strict orders that no report be made until some real facts were available. Incomplete or incorrect information was the bane of T'ath's existence, and he forbade it's generation by those in his own employ. There was no room for supposition or conjecture within the world of facts.

Some time now had passed since the ship had plummeted to ground somewhere downrange of the citadel, and the inspection team had arrived, and still no report was forthcoming. T'ath took that to mean that the team on-site was making a thorough job of it. As they had better.

He was drawing up plans to revisit that faraway world, but this time in greater strength. Such a move needed to be handled carefully, for pulling even one quarter of his personal fleet from their regular trade runs could be dangerously significant to those who watched his movements. He could not afford to have others' take notice, and grow suspicious of his actions.

Finally, he tired of watching the stars, and went inside. His offices were located within the highest tower of the citadel, making them the last place the sun touched each evening, and the nearest place to the stars that he could be. For while he owned but one world - its government shipping compound notwithstanding - he hoped to add others to his realm someday. Being close to the stars was encouraging, for the nearer he was to them, the closer they were to his grasp.

His private office was a great hall, in the very peak of the tower, and filling its expanse from wall to wall. The view from every quarter was extraordinary, and the lights of both his own landing field and those of the government field on the far horizon were visible. Everywhere else was darkness, for no others lived anywhere else upon Mufa'alatra. Having an entire world as his personal space was a significant achievement within the Moth realm - enough so that those of the council kept a worried eye upon his movements and actions. T'ath was pleased by the idea of that, which he equated with respect.

He paced across the room and then back, and then paused, wondering why he felt so unsettled. It was the lack of knowledge on the recent ship incident that was bothering him, he decided. He looked over at his desk, which was also the communications center of his own personal empire. Perhaps an inquiry was in order.

He went there, and made himself comfortable against the pylon, and sent out the mental security code that would unlock the com. The room darkened, and a large sphere appeared in the air in the center of the room. T'ath quickly checked for updates, found only the same initial report, with location of the crash site, video of the wreckage, and a brief survey of the surrounding area. He had viewed it twice already. He waved a hand at a control, and the update faded. For a moment a swirl of color danced within the sphere; and then the image sharpened, and became the face of Kil, his personal assistant. The man briefly bowed his head, and then gave a brief nod. "Your request?"

"Kil, it has been too long on the report on the ship downed earlier today. I still have only the update. Can you explain?"

"I was just in contact with the team leader. He informed me that there is conflicting evidence, which they have not been able to resolve. In keeping with your desire only for facts, they are still working to explain the discrepancy."

T'ath nodded. "I am concerned enough to view even incomplete data. Will you forward to me what you have?"


Kil disappeared, and was replaced by the face of a Moth that T'ath did not know. He was standing before the vast hole in the ground where the scout ship had come to rest. The man began his report, stating the time of day the grounding had occurred, the distance from the citadel, and included a brief description of the surrounding terrain. He then recounted the events leading up to the crash, gave an overview of the energies involved in bringing the ship down, and stated which batteries had scored hits on the craft. He then launched into a discussion on the speed of the scout ship on impact, listed the physical forces involved in the event, and discussed the expected state of the remains, given the type of ground it had impacted with.

T'ath grew impatient, waved his hand again, and quickly viewed the index to the preliminary report that popped up. He found the marker for 'conclusions', and went directly to that point.

There was a detectable level of frustration in the man's voice at this point: "Given the state of the hull after the defense barrage, the speed of the vessel at impact, and the terrain in which the vessel embedded itself, it is concluded that the central command cabin should have been completely destroyed by the impact of the rear wall of the chamber with the leading wall of the vessel. Yet that has not happened, and a void approximately twelve omnit by eight omnit remains, just inside the rent in the outer hull through which we entered. This void cannot be accounted for, and ongoing testing of the hull and the ground at the impact site have failed to reveal an answer to this apparent paradox. Additionally, no remains of the crew have been found, even under molecular and genetic scanning. No shipmind has been found in the area of the central console, which was pulverized, and tracers have not been able to identify any remains of the shipmind capsule. The only conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that there was never any crew aboard, and that no shipmind was in place at the time of impact..."

T'ath had stopped listening by then. Was he surrounded by idiots? Did this team leader feel that he should not report these incredible facts, just because he could not yet explain them?

No crew? No shipmind? It seemed obvious what had happened. The scout had been a diversion, something for the security systems to focus upon while some other vessel tried to slip through. But...where was the second ship? It had not been detected, and no scat field known, not even one of Moth manufacture, could hide a vessel from T'ath's scanners...

A chilling thought came to him then. Could there actually be a scat field out there - someone else's - that could allow a vessel to slip through T'ath's defenses, and make it to ground? Could that already have happened? And what of the void inside the crashed vessel, almost as if something had been inside, and left after the crash? But...that was impossible...wasn't it?

Suddenly, T'ath could see now why the inspection team leader had not reported. He had no factual answers as yet. The information he had learned was contradictory with the known facts of the incident. There were either facts as yet undiscovered, or they were dealing with an enemy that was far more capable than even T'ath had imagined.

The second idea was more frightening. Could it be that these unknowns, these people that had disposed of the Arpathant, were even more powerful than he had supposed? Could they have actually decided to trace the scout ship back to its base? Could they even now, in some incredible, unfathomable way, already be here?

The lights in the room softened, and then went out. The comm died at the same moment, and the central sphere vanished. It happened so suddenly that T'ath froze at his pylon. He waved his hand, and issued several mental commands, but nothing happened at all. The office was completely dead. He turned his head, looked about, and realized that he could just barely see. Starlight, coming in through the tower windows.

A brief and uncharacteristic sense of panic struck him then, at the timing of this incident, and its unprecedented nature. Power outages did not occur in modern systems, and there was no way that anyone could have turned them off from afar. Failure of Moth electronic systems was simply unheard of. He waited a moment longer - the failure should have brought Kil and a handpicked defensive force on the run.


He pushed away from his pylon and moved towards the center of the room...


It was just a whisper, barely audible. His name, as if spoken by the wind. T'ath froze in mid-step.

A light came on above him, a soft cone of radiance, creating a circle of light on the floor of the room, in which he was at the center.

T'ath gave the full set of commands that should have activated every defense system on the planet, and caused everyone in the tower to come to his aid.

But nothing happened...nothing at all happened. T'ath was frozen at the plain impossibility of that.


His name again, a little louder this time. He moved to the edge of the circle of light, but when he made to step out of it, it was if he had hit an invisible wall. He bounced back a step and stopped, stunned. Outside the circle, he could still see the furnishings of his office, and the dimly-lit windows in the walls. Nothing moved out there, no one was coming to his aid.

He started around the circle, pushing with his hands against the invisible wall. It gave only slightly, but showed no sign of giving in. He made a full circle, and came back to where he had started. He was trapped.


This time, his name had weight when spoken. Outside the circle of light, in the air above him, a soft point of light became visible, and then another, and another...and soon an entire circle of them, stretching completely around the cone of light. He counted nine of them. They pulsed, and slowly grew, larger and larger, until they were at least his own height. And then they began to sharpen, develop features...

...and then they became faces.

T'ath froze in horror. Eight of the faces were obviously those of living beings. They were barely visible, cloaked by hoods, which formed pools of darkness within; but T'ath could see their eyes. They were bright, recessed beneath bony ridges on which fur appeared! And there were other strange features below the eyes, that did not resemble any race with which T'ath was familiar. The enormity of the hovering faces gave their exaggerated features a terrifying alien quality, and the fact that their flesh was light instead of dark gave an impression of death.

But it was the ninth face that had him rooted in place. It was a great, silvery ball, featureless save for a long covering over where the eyes should have been. Even as he watched, the covering slowly lifted, and a malevolent red light sprang into being - a line of luminescence upon which a slightly greater orb of light slowly wandered back and forth, side to side.

"T'ath." It was one of the hooded figures that had spoken. T'ath jerked his eyes around until he saw one of the enormous faces leaned forward, looking down at him.

T'ath was not a coward, by any means. He was startled, and he was at a loss for how this could be happening in what should have been the safest place he could be. The sense of unease that had overtaken him was unlike anything he had every experienced. It was, literally, the closest he had ever come to raw, wretched fear.

"Who are you?"

"We are the Terrans."

T'ath drew a complete blank. He was familiar with all the registered races of the five empires, but of these he had never once heard.

"I do not know you."

"No. You do not. But you will."

There was something ominous about that, and again T'ath felt the sense of unease, a creeping sensation at his back that was totally new to him. He was afraid!

Not just at the deathly appearances of these newcomers, but that they could so easily project their influence into the most tightly controlled security environment he had been able to conceive for himself. In a lifetime of knowing superiority over every other race, he was feeling, for the very first time...insignificant.

The horror of that realization added a bravado to his voice that he did not actually feel. "What do you want? How dare you invade my private offices!"

The words sounded thin, even to himself.

The great face made a sound that caused T'ath to cringe just slightly.

"How do I dare? How do you dare to send your people to our world, there to kidnap our citizens?"

For a second, T'ath's mind refused to work; and then he knew. "You are the unknown ones. You are responsible for the destruction of the Arpathant."

Again came that strange, unsettling noise. "They have not been destroyed. They were an annoyance to us, so we simply moved them."

Not destroyed?

"Moved them? Moved them to where?"

"To an adjacent reality. A mirror universe of this one, but one empty of life. The Arpthant now occupy the same worlds there that they once did here. But in that reality, they are alone."

For moment, T'ath could not even move. The idea of what the alien was telling him slowly unfolded within his mind, followed immediately by a sense of genuine disbelief. That someone could possess this sort of science - this sort of power - was unimaginable. There was no reason to believe them - other than the fact that the Arpathant were indeed vanished. That, and the apparent ease with which these aliens had traced his mission to their world back to T'ath's own world, and invaded even his inner sanctorum - it was reason to accept the cold and clear truth of the situation.

That he was overmatched was immediately apparent. T'ath was strict, and often regimented in his planning, but he was no fool, and now he could see that he had been overambitious in his reach. The disappearance of the Arpathant should have been enough of a loss factor to clearly delineate the risks of pursuing this matter - and yet, he had ignored them, and forged ahead. And now - this.

"You are here, so you must want something."

"Yes. You have retained the location of our world. We wish that information destroyed."

"Yes? Do you not have the power to destroy it yourselves?"

Another of the great faces spoke now. "I told you he would not be reasonable. Let us vaporize this planet and go home."

"No, no," said another face. "I say we throw it into its sun. Burning is such a fitting end for this one."

There was a brief roar of flame, and the sensation of fire at his back caused T'ath to jump. He turned to look behind him, but nothing was there. But he had felt real heat!

"No, no! Wait!"

A great face lowered towards him. "You wish to say something?"

"What kind of beings are you?" he asked, without thinking.

"Tolerant ones," said another head. "We have lived long on our world, minding our own business. What others do in the galaxy is no concern to us, just so long as we are left alone. That is the only thing we demand of you, and others out in the galaxy. Stay away from our world, or pay the consequences."

"If I destroy this information, as you will leave?"

"We will leave."

It seemed too easy a bargain to T'ath. "What of the former worlds of the Arpathant?"

"Take them," said the original great face. "But stay away from our system, and our world. Or, you will follow the Arpathant into oblivion."

The weight of those words settled heavily upon T'ath's shoulders. He was quaking now, much as he tried to control it. That he and all the Moth might be standing at the door to a fate similar to that of the Arpathant was simply too much to ignore.

A lesser being might have tried to bargain with these Terrans, or even to refuse to cooperate entirely. But T'ath had not risen to his station in life without understanding and reason at his back, and the facts as he could see them now were undeniable. Moth science and technology was the finest there was. No one heretofore known was capable of breaching the security of his world, and definitely not as easily as these aliens had done. They were, therefore, on a level of understanding beyond his experience, and therefore beyond his ability to cope with. To defy them was to beg the destruction of everything he had worked for, and everything his people hoped to accomplish.

And, in all actuality, what they asked for was entirely reasonable. They simply wished to be left alone. T'ath wondered then if their mission to his planet was entirely as they said. It seemed that anyone capable of what they seemed capable of doing would also be able to reach their goals without a direct confrontation. So maybe there was another reason they had come in person...and then he had it. Of course. A warning, hand delivered.

Leave us alone!

He was decided. "I agree. I will do as you wish."

Outside the cone of light, a section of the room grew light. The great faces spaced around him watched him carefully now, their gazes upon him carrying an almost physical pressure against his flesh.


T'ath walked to the edge of the cone of light, extended a hand - the barrier was no longer present. He strode through, went to his desk. "I will need my system running."

Lights appeared on the console, and the globular display formed in the air above the desk.

T'ath stored his most valuable information in a Turan bubble, a quantum safe that, when locked, could not be definitely located in any one place within the universe. Only when the proper quantum encryption key was entered, would the safe appear. He entered that key now, waited for the bubble of dictated space/time to appear, and then used the bridge to access its storage. The data pertaining to the planet he had sent his investigative team to had a special marker, and he found it quickly. But he did not open it, had no desire to add any information to his mind that he might later regret having there.

He turned back to the floating faces. "Once I delete this, the information folder will attain a state of absolute randomness, and will be unrecoverable."

"He speaks the truth," said a great, deep voice, that made T'ath start. He was not sure which head it had come from, or even if it had come from one of the heads at all. It had a whispery quality to it that was somehow very familiar, and if he did not know better, he would have suspected it to be the voice of another Moth.

The original great head nodded. "Proceed."

T'ath turned back to his system, entered the code for deletion...and paused. The destruction of unique and valuable information appalled him. This would be the first time he had done it, and he was suddenly aware that he had entered a new phase of his life. I can scarcely believe I am doing this, he thought, as he gave the final order. The information folder on the distant world of the aliens became transparent, swirled a moment in memory of its former organization, and then dispersed.

"It is done."

He quickly closed the bridge, and sent the quantum safe back to its non-location, lest something happen to any of his other valuable data. It was all irreplaceable, for security had always dictated that the copies kept in the safe be the only ones he had. The idea of what he had just done still haunted him; yet the newness of it also intrigued him. He was changed now, in some way he could not name, and that it was for the better was both a startling idea and a pleasant one.

"Return to the circle, T'ath."

He did as he was instructed, and the office dimmed to darkness again behind him.

The original head leaned down again, and the lower portion of its face spread in a frightening manner. "You are a reasonable man, T'ath, and so we will be reasonable as well. We will leave you now, never to return. I do offer one word of caution, however."


"Ours is not the only species in that area of the galaxy that you need to avoid. I tell you this so you do not run afoul of others with less tolerance than we. It would be safest for your kind to take only the three quarters of the former Arpathant empire closest to you, and leave the rest be. Do you understand me?"

"Yes. That sort of expansion will not occur in my lifetime, nor even in the following generation. I can perhaps manage to leave a warning, but whether or not it will be heeded - I cannot say."

That seemed to satisfy the great head. It bobbed at him once more. "We leave you now."

A sense of relief filled T'ath. On some level he thought he might have been killed after performing the duty the aliens had demanded of him. But it seemed not to be the case.

But then the head leaned down at him, and the eyes grew bright. "One further thing."

T'ath felt one last shiver of fear. "Yes?"

The entire circle of heads tilted down at him now, and the suddenness of the act made him shrink down into himself. All the heads spoke at once then, and the volume was deafening.

"Happy Halloween!"

And then they vanished. The lights came on, his desk started up, and an insistent beeping sought his attention. T'ath looked once more about his office, and then returned to his desk and activated the viewer. "What is it, Kil?"

"The investigative team has learned that you were inquiring, and has filed an amended report. You will not like it, but it is all we have at the moment."

T'ath felt strangely at peace with himself, now that this matter had been concluded. He was free to move on to other projects now. There was profit to be made in the former Arpathant empire, and laggers would be losers.

"Never mind, Kil. Send the team a 'well done' from me, and recall them. Get a clean up crew out to recover that ship. No use trashing up my nice, clean landscape."

If Kil was startled by the sudden turn in events, he did not show it. "Very well. And the crew in information quarantine?"

That was another matter. The knowledge that they carried on the alien's home world must also be deleted somehow. It was the only safe thing to do.

"Hold them for now. Make certain they are comfortable. I will make a decision later."

"Very well."

The display darkened, and T'ath leaned back into the comfortable embrace of his pylon. Only then did he recall the final words of the aliens.

What in the Morben's name was Halloween?

* * * * * * *

It was almost as simple a matter to steal a ship from the government field as it had been to commandeer the one left in Charlie's backyard. Once they found out that some of the trade vessels were sent on their routes without living crews, solely under the control of the shipmind, it was easy enough for Max to remove the restraints from the mind of a ship identical to their lost one, and then for them to secrete themselves aboard it without being detected by port personnel. Once the vessel was in space and had entered the Cooee, they simply changed the direction they wished to go, aiming the craft back to Earth, while everyone aboard was asked to think about making a stop at Engris.

The Moth would list the vessel as lost when it did not arrive with its cargo at the intended destination. Even in the high-tech world of the Moth, these things had happened. The Cooee was mostly a mystery, still.

This vessel's mind was called Onglet, and seemed just as pleased to be released from servitude as Murcha had been. Murcha and Illia were placed into the storage drawer next to the new mind, and very soon all three of them were fast friends. Mike was glad to have the shipmind from Pacha's vessel occupied, as Illia seemed to take some delight in making life for Mike a little bit hard to bear. At least out in public, anyway.

In due course they located Engris, and landed at the port. Pacha returned Illia to his ship, although he knew know that she now shared a link with Murcha and Onglet. Those two shipminds remained aboard the Moth vessel as everyone else debarked.

"We want to thank you guys for your help," Charlie told Gort, as they headed back to Sefton's. "We could not have done this without you."

"I'll say," Max added. "The way you guys can knit my magic together with Pacha's - it was amazing the things we got done."

"We just facilitated things, Max. It was you and Pacha that did the actual work."

"It was a most fascinating experience," Pacha said. "I accomplished tasks with you and Max that I never thought possible. We made a wonderful threesome...or foursome. I don't think that the Ka has ever been wielded quite so well."

Max looked over at Pacha. "I'd love to work with ya some more."

"I would enjoy that, too. Can you...?"

"Oh, sure. We call it norking. Just gimme a call, anytime. We'll talk, and trade some ideas."

"I would enjoy that."

Mike came over and draped his arms around Charlie's and Kippy's shoulders as they walked along. "I felt like a fifth wheel on this one."

Kippy smiled. "We all did. The true work was done by Max and Pacha, and Billy and Will."

"Oh, I don't know," Charlie said. "We were all pretty good as talking heads looming over T'ath."

"That was just a blast," Adrian said, as he and Ricky joined them. "We all got to play parts there."

"Did you see the look on that guy's face when we appeared?" Ricky asked, grinning. "First time I ever saw a Moth turn green!"

"I think he handled it pretty well," Charlie said. "He was a lot more reasonable than I expected him to be. I would up kind of liking the guy at the end."

Kippy's jaw dropped, but then he laughed. "Oh, Charlie, you always stick up for the bad guys!"

"I do not. I just appreciate reason when I see it."

Frit and Pip hustled by them just then, chasing after a vendor walking along with odd-looking, floppy hats in a small cart. Max sighed as they caught up to the alien seller, and immediately launched into discussions with him. "Them two! If they buy one more thing, I'll make them walk home with it."

The elf boys returned a few moments later, without any of the hats.

"Too big," Frit said, sadly. "We could both wear them at the same time."

Pip nodded. "Great colors, though. We'll look more on the way back. Souveneirs!"

Kippy grinned. "Visit lovely Engris, world of the dead. Turn left at the Crab Nebula, first dark world on your right!"

The boys laughed.

"Has anyone decided what we're gonna do with Murcha and Onglet?" Max asked. "They said that, after they drop us off, they'd like to stay around."

Charlie grunted. "I am not parking a Moth scout ship in my backyard, even an invisible one."

"They could come back here," Ricky suggested. "Can't we keep some way to talk to them, and we can just send for them if we want to go tooling around space?"

"I am sure we can arrange something," Pacha said. "Communicators of that type are inexpensive, and can be purchased here at the market. You would just need to settle on an encryption code, and you'd be set."

"While we're at it, we'd like to be able to call you, too," Kippy said. "Even if just to say hello."

Mike grinned. "I'll help you guys get what you need. We'll stop at the market on the way back to the ship."

Sefton was in his shop, and readily agreed to fly them back to the city. "That was quick," the big man said. "You just there earlier today."

Charlie stared at him. "Today?" He turned to look at Max. "Today?"

Max came over beside him. "I told you when we started that I'd fix all that, Charlie. I ain't hung around the Big Guy all these years without learnin' a few tricks about time. You'll get home the same night that you left."

Kippy shook his head. "All this time stuff is enough to give me a headache."

Max sighed. "Time is pretty steady when left on its own, fellas. But if you can stretch it a little, or compress it, or even fold it in half, why not, I say? It can make a lot of things in life a lot easier."

Adrian grinned at Ricky. "Home in time for Halloween, anyway. What are we doing this year?"

Charlie shrugged. "You guys can come over, and we'll just hang out. My folks are going to a party --"

"Your parents, Charlie?" Ricky interrupted, laughing.

Charlie smiled. "My mom and dad are fun people, I'll have you know. Besides, it's just a small party for people at my dad's office. They won't be late, but I kinda promised to be home to hand out the candy to the little goblins that come to the door."

Kippy tsked. "Oh, Charlie, no self-respecting ten year-old wants to be a goblin anymore. They want to be superheroes and dinosaurs and stuff like that."

Charlie sighed. "Whatever. I said I'd be there to do it."

Kippy rubbed up against him. "I'll be there to help."

Ricky and Adrian looked at each other, and Adrian grinned and nodded.

"Sure, we'll be by," Ricky said. "Maybe we can get a pizza or something."

Charlie and Kippy both laughed. Like they never had pizza!

The climbed into Sefton's tour saucer, and soon were crossing the dark forest once again.

Kippy sat next to Gort, and reached out and touched the robot. "We'll sure miss you guys."

The great round head turned to face him. "We had fun visiting with you, Kip. All of you. Now that we know we can do it, there is no reason we can't do it again another time."

Kippy looked delighted. "Great! I don't like it when my friends get too far away."

"We couldn't have done this without you two," Charlie said.

For a moment, Gort was quiet. Then: "Actually, you could have. In several alternate realities, this mission was accomplished without our assistance. But...not so easily."

Charlie blinked at the sound of that. "Uh, how not so easily do you mean?"

"There were casualties, Charlie."

Charlie felt a sudden sense of fright at that, and scooted over closer to Kippy. "Don't say one word more, okay?"

"What's going on?" Ricky asked, looking over at them.

"Nothing. I had a sudden cramp. I'm okay."

Ricky and Adrian went back to talking together, and Charlie leaned closer to Gort. "Please...don't ever mention this again, okay? I...we don't want to now the details."

"I know," Billy's voice alone said then. "It's why we came along, Charlie. We could not bear the idea of any of you being hurt."

"It was a simple choice," Will said. "We talked to some people, and we found a way that, with Max's and Pacha's help, we could go with you. So, we did."

"Thank you," Charlie said. He put an arm around Kippy, and pulled him close. Kippy didn't say anything, just closed his eyes and laid his head against Charlie's.

They were still together when they reached the dead city.

The great dome was as dark and as empty as it had been when they had last left it. Again, Sefton waited with the saucer while the others accompanied Gort to the pathway at the center of the dome. The reached the great, dark hole in the floor, and gathered into a group.

"I know one thing," Charlie said. "I want a hug while we can still touch you. Come on, Kip...guys."

Charlie and Kippy closed in on the great robot form, and Ricky and Adrian joined them. The four of them wrapped their arms about the robot, and Charlie closed his eyes and simply hugged.

"Us, too!" Frit said, as he and Pip squirmed into the group and wrapped their arms around everyone else. Charlie looked over his shoulder at Mike, standing there, watching, Pacha cradled in his arms.

"Room for one more."

Mike laughed, and shook his head; but then he was handing Pacha to Max, and coming towards them.

"Right here, next to me," Kippy said, sweetly.

"No! Here! Between us!" Pip and Frit called, in unison.

Mike rolled his eyes, and came forward and managed to get his arms around all three of them.

"Dreamy," Frit breathed, sounding happy.

"Mmm!" Pip agreed.

They all squeezed each other and Gort for a full minute, and then broke up, laughing.

"Now, that's what I call a group hug!" Adrian said.

They waited a moment while Max and Pacha had their turn, and then they all stepped back, and Gort went to stand by the hole in the floor. Once more, Billy and Will worked with Max and Pacha, and soon Gort had dissolved into a column of light and slowly dissipated, leaving the ghostly figures of Billy and Will by themselves again.

Billy sighed. "I got to be Gort for Halloween. Finally."

Will smiled at him. "Yeah. And it was fun, after all."

Billy laughed. "Told ya."

Then both spirits turned to look at the others. "Time to go now," they said as one. "But we'll see you again, you can be sure of that."

"So long!" Frit and Pip said, in unison. Their faces looked sad, and they were holding onto each other for comfort.

Kippy smiled at them, and moved closer to Charlie. Charlie put his arm around him, and nodded at the two spirits "Bye, guys. Be careful out there."

Kippy nodded. "Yeah. Have fun."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Ricky called, giving a small wave, and then giving his nose a single rub.

Adrian nodded. "We'll see you again. Soon, huh?" He pulled himself closer to Ricky.

Max gave a soft sigh, and stepped forward. "Stay outta trouble, fellas," he offered, smiling. "Bet you can give more than you get, though."

Pacha raised a small hand, and waved. "It was a truly wonderful experience."

"Bon voyage," Mike said simply, waving.

Billy and Will joined hands, and raised the other two in a last wave. The light around them intensified, and they became one, flowing together into a mist filled with sparkles. The glowing mist moved to the edge of the hole, and disappeared below.

Kippy sighed. "I feel like crying, but I'm too happy. And, I know now that we'll see them again."

Charlie nodded, and looked up at the great dome. "This is an amazing place. It seems so lifeless...until the dead arrive."

Max laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder. "You learn fast, Charlie. We'll make an elf outta you yet."

Kippy turned and looked into Charlie's eyes. "I think I'm ready to go home."

"Yeah. I know what you mean."

They returned to the saucer, and again, Sefton seemed unperturbed by the absence of Gort. He simply took his seat at the controls, and notified Max that the fee would be reduced, since they were now one rider short.

They stopped at the port and bought tiny transmitters that could be used to talk to both Pacha's ship and the shipminds of the Moth vessel. Pip and Frit managed to find outlandish capes and hats after all, and sauntered about, trying to look rakish and bold. Charlie and the other boys looked at the market for any other things that might interest them, but this time came away empty handed.

"Not every visit is a treasure hunt," Pacha told them, amiably. "There's always next time."

"I didn't get a chance to check my map against anything," Adrian said, as they boarded the ship for the voyage home.

"Yeah, well, I didn't get to draw my dagger even once," Ricky complained.

Kippy made an indignant noise. "Consider yourself lucky, I say." He put his hands on his hips and grinned at Charlie. "Now you see I was right not to bring my ring."

Charlie just nodded. There was no use getting into any of that.

The time came to go, and again hugs were exchanged all around with Pacha and Mike.

"Where will you go from here?" Kippy asked Mike, as they made to part.

"Don't know, Kipper. Yonder somewhere, I would reckon."

Kippy smiled, gave Mike another hug, and then whispered into the Aussie boy's ear, "I told you never to call me Kipper."

He pulled back, and then laid a kiss directly on Mike's lips. Mike's eyes grew, and he tried to draw away, but Kippy held on fiercely, kissing with all his might. Mike struggled a moment more, then he suddenly shrugged, wrapped his arms around Kippy, and kissed him back.

Frit and Pip hooted, and Ricky and Adrian laughed and clapped. Charlie just smiled, knowing that Kippy was just having fun. More or less.

Kippy finally released his prey, and stepped back. Ricky and Adrian patted him on the shoulder, while Frit and Pip mooned at the both of them.

"Not bad," Kippy said, nodding. "I'd give it a seven out of ten."

Mike just laughed, and went and took Pacha from Max's arms. The two walked Charlie's group to their ship, and then said their goodbyes once more. Again Kippy sighed, and said he could cry, but that he was just too happy to be going home.

They left Engris, and the world of darkness soon vanished into the Cooee.

Their next stop was Earth, and home.

They had said their goodbyes to Murcha and Onglet, and the Moth watermelon ship had disappeared into the night sky. They entered Charlie's house, and managed to get to Charlie's bedroom without waking his parents. It was just hard to believe that it was still the same night they had left, and when Charlie looked at the clock on his nightstand, only five hours had gone by since their departure.

"That's really a neat trick," he decided, looking at Max. "So are we only five hours older, or am I the week or so I feel?"

"You're the week or so older you feel," Max told him, grinning. "The slowdown was just on this end."

Frit and Pip demanded hugs, and the four humans offered them gladly. The elves had become as much a part of their lives as their own families, and the only good thing about seeing them go was knowing that they were only a short elf-jump away.

The last person to get a hug was Max. Charie waited to be last, and when his turn came, he gave a good one. "We love you, Max. I hope you know that."

The elf stepped back and gave a small sniff, and nodded. "Me, too, Charlie. We've done some pretty amazin' stuff together. And...I think they'll be more."

Charlie smiled. "I sure hope so. Life would be dull now, without all this."

Frit and Pip invited them to all go elfdreaming again some time, since their last adventure had been interrupted. Everyone agreed, saying they could use the rest.

The elves waved a last time, and then the four humans were alone in Charlie's bedroom.

Kippy immediately flopped on the bed with a sigh. "Undress me, Charlie. I'm exhausted."

Adrian and Ricky laughed, and moved to the cot to act out the same game.

Charlie sighed, and undid Kippy's shoes and pulled them off, and then his socks. Next he grasped his boyfriend's shirt, and pulled it off over his head. Kippy's jeans came next, and then he was down to his briefs. Charlie worked them carefully down Kip's legs, and then pulled them off. There was movement in Kippy's crotch, and then his dick started to stand up tall.

"I thought you were tired, Kip?"

Kippy grinned. "I'm never that tired, Charlie. Join me?"

Charlie smiled, quickly undressed himself, and climbed into bed. The clock said they still had three and a half hours until sunrise.

If they hurried, they could still sleep for three of them.

Halloween arrived. The day was damp, but the afternoon brought sun, and the world outside dried out. Two short years ago, the boys had gone all out to give the neighborhood kids a scary Halloween. This year, Charlie had carved a jack-o-lantern and put a candle in it, and set it on the front porch. They were either getting more mature, or their ideas of what was scary had changed considerably. Charlie suspected the latter.

Afternoon came, and they ordered their by now traditional holiday pizza from Irving's, and then turned on the front light as darkness approached, and settled down to hand out candy. The first trick or treaters arrived just after sunset - the smallest ones, dressed as fairies and Spidermen, and all accompanied by mom's and pop's. They quickly went through the first bowl of candy, and then the second. Charlie was amazed at how many kids there were in his neighborhood now - he hadn't been paying attention.

Ricky and Adrian went to the kitchen to refill the bowl, and Charlie leaned up against Kippy and kissed him. "Having fun?"

"Yes. A lot of it, actually." Kippy let his eyes roll up to the ceiling a moment before returning them to Charlie. "I love cruising around the cosmos with all our friends, getting into adventures and stuff...but..."

Charlie smiled, and moved a little closer. "But what?"

Kippy sighed, and pressed his lips to Charlie's. "But sometimes, just doing simple things with you is more fun than all that other stuff. This is where I want to be tonight, doing this, with you."

Charlie nodded. "I get that, believe me." He kissed Kippy, and made it count.

Kippy sighed. "Oh, Charlie. Those kisses are just so wonderful."

Charlie grinned. "Better than Mike?"

Kippy laughed, looked both ways to make sure he was not being overheard, and then put his lips to Charlie's ear. "I like Mike, and he's cute, and he's sexy. And he does well - for an older guy."

Charlie laughed. "But?"

"He still needs practice as a kisser, Charlie. No one is better than you."

"Except you." They kissed once more.

The doorbell rang again, and Kippy sighed, pulled away, and went ot get it. Charlie was to the rear of the door, and his view outside was cut off as Kippy opened it.

Charlie saw his boyfriend start, and then draw back suddenly. "Oh!"

"What's the matter?" Charlie asked, coming around the door. He stopped then, and joined Kippy in staring.

Outside, two robed, ghostlike wraiths floated above the stoop, dark in color, yet shrouded in a malevolent purple glow. Within the hoods of their robes, burning red eyes housed in twisted green faces glared at them, looking like furiously burning coals in some furnace of hell. That these were not costumes seemed apparent, and Charlie's mind whirled into action, wondering who these unexpected visitors could be.

"Here's some more candy --" Adrian said, coming up behind them. Ricky was at his heels, and both boys stopped, shocked at the apparitions at the door.

"Crap!" Ricky said, under his breath, putting his hands on Adrian's shoulders and drawing him back.

Outside, each of the wraiths raised a hand and laid it atop the hood of its robe. Kippy backed up another step, and Charlie wrapped his arms protectively around his boyfriend's shoulders.

One of the wraiths giggled. Then the other. Charlie stared harder. He know those laughs.

The wraiths closed their hands on the material of their hoods, and suddenly jerked their arms upwards. The robes followed, and suddenly vanished, leaving Frit and Pip standing there, grinning at them.

Pip immediately jumped up and down, his face a mask of delight. "We got you!"

Frit grinned ear to ear. "Happy Halloween!"

Kippy released his breath then, and laughed. "Boy, did you!"

"Trick or treat!" Frit called, his eyes filled with laughter.

"Smell my feet!" Pip followed with, dancing in delight now.

"Give me something good to eat!" Frit finished.

The two elves dissolved into laughter, and clutched at each other, their eyes screwed closed, their faces together.

"I think we taught these guys about Halloween a little too well," Adrian said, from behind them. But he was grinning, and so was Ricky.

Charlie smiled, and pulled Kippy closer, and the two of them watched the elves as they pranced about on the front door stoop.

Kippy turned, and smiled into Charlie's eyes. "Oh, Charlie," he whispered softly, "being with you is such an adventure. What can be next?"

Charlie just laughed. "Oh, that's easy to answer, Kip. Christmas!"

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead