Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 1

© 2021 Geron Kees © 2021 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.

"How do I look?" Ricky Travers asked, as he posed before Charlie Boone and his boyfriend, Kippy Lawson.

They were standing in the pirate market on Engris, the fabled ancient world that traveled the dark depths of the Cooee, while throngs of aliens of every sort walked or crawled or hopped past them. None of the passersby gave the humans much more than a cursory curious glance, even though humans were not a recognized species within the Five Empires. People on Engris minded their own business, most of which was secretive, and paying attention invited attention, as the local saying went. So after a very brief inspection indeed, the humans were politely ignored unless they stationed themselves directly before a seller of goods.

They were near a large booth with luminescent signage, that grandly proclaimed in a tongue their translators told them was Bocustin, the sale of Movement Enhancements Plus. The proprietor was a large fellow with a colorful, bony plated covering, a variety of arms, and eyes on five long stalks, all of which waved incessantly at the passers-by, while that fellow spoke excitedly in a raspy version of the same tongue about the wonders his stand had to offer. Ricky and Adrian had just come from there, and now stood before Charlie and Kippy, while those two boys tried not to laugh.

Ricky was wound in a glittery body wrapping that included a hood for his head, which had a face piece that only let his eyes look out. The tips of his shoes peeked out from under the lower edge of the wrap, but otherwise he was completely cocooned. His voice was slightly muffled when he spoke, and most of the emotions they could detect from him were only visible in his eyes and heard in his voice. Just now, both of those sources were expressing excitement, and some order of pride.

Kippy smiled, and squeezed Charlie's arm. "Isn't he cute? I always wanted to see Rick in a dress."

Beside Ricky, his boyfriend Adrian Whittaker snickered softly, but didn't say anything. Ricky's eyes grew surprised, and he looked down at the glittery wrap he was wearing, and then looked up at them again in clear annoyance. "What? It's not a dress, Kip. This is the latest in sensor invisibility. Anyone wearing one of these babies can't be detected by any sensors known, including those super snoopers the Moth use."

Charlie brought a hand up and tried to subtly cover his mouth, again making an effort not to laugh. But Ricky noticed anyway, and his eyes glared accusingly at the unspoken condemnation of his newest acquisition. "I thought at least you would admire the technology, Charlie."

"I do, Rick, I do. I'm sure it's wonderful to be able to evade sensor detection."

The other boy's eyes narrowed in another frown. "So why is everybody giving me that look?"

Charlie sighed. "'s kind of a...a noticeable get up, Rick. Um...sort of like wearing a lighted sign, if you know what I mean."

"You look like the Strip in Vegas," Kippy threw in, smiling. "Or Cinderella at the ball, in her glittery gown!"

Ricky made a frustrated sound, and patted the wrap, which rustled alarmingly at the touch. "But I'm invisible to detection!"

Kippy leaned forward and patted the other boy's shoulder, which initiated more rustling from the wrap. "But you're visible to the eyes, Rick, and in a really big way. And you sound like you're wrapped in tin foil when you move. So they may not be able to detect you coming on scanners, but they sure will see you with their eyes, and hear you moving, long before that."

Ricky's eyes widened, and then he glanced down at the glittery wrap again. "See me?" He looked up at Charlie then, embarrassment now coloring his gaze. "Uh...damn. I kind of didn't even think of that."

Charlie nodded. "I can see how that outfit would be useful if you were drifting towards a ship in the dark of outer space or something. In a situation where being seen or heard didn't matter. But you're not invisible, Rick, even if you can't be detected by sensors. Kip is right. That suit makes you much more noticeable than you'd be without it."

"You look like a Christmas tree," Kippy went on, smiling. "But a cute one."

Ricky huffed in disgust; and then they heard a soft click from inside the wrap. It opened along an invisible seam in the front, and the boy shrugged out of it. As soon as he did, the wrap began to contract, quickly shrinking into a small, flat bundle, which Ricky then tucked into a black pouch and stuffed into the pocket of his jeans. "Oh, well. At least it wasn't that expensive."

Adrian stepped back from his boyfriend then, looked him up and down in an admiring fashion, and then moved close again and smiled. "Much better."

Ricky grinned, then leaned towards his boyfriend and puckered up, and he and Adrian shared a quick but heartfelt kiss. Kippy sighed softly, and dropped his hand down to grasp Charlie's, and gave it a quick squeeze. "I love love."

Charlie laughed. "And it does seem to be in the air."

Kippy sighed at that. "It must be the romantic surroundings."

Charlie looked around at the eternally dark sky, the alien architecture standing all around them, and the crowds of non-human visitors everywhere, some of whom were a little alarming to the eye, to say the least. But all he could do was smile. "Must be."

Ricky grinned then, and patted his pocket. "Okay, so it's maybe not the most useful thing I've ever bought. I guess I didn't think this one through very well." He laughed. "I guess I let the holiday air overcome me."

"It's a vacation," Kippy countered, his eye shining with humor. "You let the vacationy air overcome you."

Ricky looked exasperated. "Whatever. We're here to have fun. And what fun is it being a millionaire if you never buy anything?"

That was true. Murcha and Onglet, the two artificial intelligences that the boys had freed from Moth control, had used the spaceship they had also acquired from those dark aliens to build a nice little interstellar transport business, the proceeds from which were banked there on Engris in several different galactic currencies. It had become quite a tidy sum now, and neither Murcha nor Onglet had any use for money. Other than the standard maintenance on the ship, the money was just laying about in the Bank of Engris, gathering interest.

The boys had gotten so that they were not hesitant about using some of that credit now and then, and had first rented, and then purchased, a comfortable villa on the edge of the city. It gave them a place to stay when they visited Engris; and better yet, provided a home for their friends, Ragal and Casper, and a base from which they could all operate when they were doing things out among the stars. And a very comfortable base it was, too. There were far worse places one could live than Engris!

The ancient world was artificial, constructed a half-million years in the past by a race that had understood that death was not the end, but just a change in state. Using physics that had yet to be duplicated by any of the current empires, they had constructed a world hidden in the depths of the Cooee, that strange, dark place disconnected from the normal universe, where ships could travel the incredible distances between the stars in literally no time at all. This amazing planet allowed for those who had passed on to return and visit the living they had left behind. The intricate cities of these ancient people dotted the planet's twilit surface, each home to clusters of the spirit domes that were places where the two worlds could meet. Charlie and his friends had been able to visit with their two good friends, Billy and Will, who had passed away on earth in the past. Those two had been lovers, and they had met again as partners in eternity, roaming the dimensions of space in an endless exploration that never failed to fascinate them both.

And there was of course the pirate market of Al'roost, at the center of the port city built by those wanderers and drifters who had fled the five empires and settled Engris in the half-millennium since the Molokar had first discovered the place. Here the wares of a thousand worlds were available for purchase. Much of the merchandise that was available on Engris was also readily available at more standard sources throughout known space; but they tended to be cheaper here, and just as good, so long as one didn't get curious about their provenance. The current owners were the only owners anyone here cared about, and how these owners had come into possession of their wares was not open to discussion.

Additionally, the pirate market was a fabulous source for items that couldn't be found anywhere else: novel new technologies not yet officially released; or amazing, ancient technologies, that had come from the dead empires of yore, picked up on planets that were no longer on the maps, nor even known to still exist. And artifacts, constructs, and objects unknown; things and doodads and whatsits that defied description, part of the great lost heritage of a galaxy that had given birth to races and watched them grow to conquer the stars, and then to disappear again into the dusts of time.

There were strict laws in place within the empires of space that required that all such found antiquities be declared and turned in to the authorities - laws that would tend to preclude a decent profit for the archaeologists, adventurers, and outright freebooters that plied the spaceways in search of lost history. Much of that found property wound up at the market on Engris, so long as the seller was of mild heart and soul, and not one looking for trouble. Engris did not abide trouble, and the artificial world had ways of ensuring that undesirables of every sort were removed, and never allowed to find the world again. This intolerance for violence and mischief extended to the great fleets of the galactic empires themselves. No one looking to cause trouble would find Engris more than once, and even the great powers of the galaxy, which coveted the ancient world's secrets, had come up short against the awesome technologies that Engris could evidently bring to bear.

"That's true," Adrian agreed. "It's not like we're plowing through all that money, or knocking it back in any appreciable way. Every time we come here there's more than there was last time we visited."

Ricky nodded in agreement, and looked satisfied. The sensor cloak would undoubtedly join some of the boy's other treasures in the closet of his room at the villa. They each had such a room and such a closet by now, home to the many often strange and fascinating things they had each picked up at the marketplace. The closets were far from full, and Charlie could not really envision a day when they would be. The pirate market was an incredible place, but then the closets in the villa were very large!

"Have you seen the others?" Charlie asked then, his eyes again moving searchingly among the crowds. "Max said he was hungry the last time we saw him, and that was an hour ago. I'm kind of there, myself, now, and would love some lunch."

"I could eat something, too," Kippy agreed, gently patting the flat expanse of his stomach.

"Horace went off that way with Ragal and Casper," Adrian said, turning and pointing down another crowded lane between stands.

Charlie squinted in the direction indicated, but didn't see any familiar faces. "What about Max?"

Ricky turned in another direction and pointed. "He went that way. Sefton was going to show him a particular shop, I think."

Charlie's eyes moved that way, but again couldn't see anyone he knew. All about them, the market pulsed with action. The place was just packed today, making it hard to spot anyone.

There were longstanding enterprises represented here, most of which had storefronts around the perimeter. Some of these merchants were known in the shadier sectors of the economy throughout the five empires, dealers in fabulous wares simply not available anywhere else but Engris. Others sold services - skills and instruction that were hard to learn in the more formal channels of education, but uniquely valuable to those that visited the less well-traveled places in space. And yet others sold knowledge: information, and the peculiar and often esoteric expertise needed to utilize it. The secrets upon which many a quest for long-forgotten worlds had been based; the stories, the legends, the history one would need to learn in order to strike out in the right direction in the dark depths of space, and have any real hope at landing that coveted prize: Loot!

The inner square was home to stands and stalls, many ingeniously constructed and eminently portable, designed to be put up quickly and then taken down the same way again once business was concluded. Easy to travel with, easy to store. Other stands had been there for as long as anyone could recall, their proprietors insulated against the effects of time, yet always seeming to conduct the same business and sell mostly the same wares. Many vendors specialized, and the competition was keen. But buyers still vastly outnumbered the sellers. The pirate market was ancient, the most unique outlet in known space for relics and treasures and high-tech sorcery of every type imaginable.

Yet there was also a quaint, almost hastily-assembled aspect to the proceedings, a casual informality, that lent to the market the same merry air as a weekend county fair back home. Charlie and the others had grown to love the place, and considered Engris a second home. What was not to like?

"I guess we'll find them eventually," Charlie decided. They were, after all, here on vacation. No time was passing out in the universe, and there was no place they had to be. Fun was the order of the day, right?

"Even Max gets involved in the stuff that goes on here." Kippy smiled mischievously. "The elves are an honorable bunch. I think Max gets a secret little thrill in rubbing elbows with all these thieves."

The others laughed at that, and Adrian followed up with a grand and happy sigh. "I guess it is time to eat." He poked his boyfriend, who jumped, but then nodded. Ricky turned and looked around the market, set his face in an expression that said he meant to conquer the universe, and then dropped his hand on the hilt of the vibratory dagger he wore at his belt, and started forward. "Well, let's just go find them, then, shall we?"

They moved off as one, Ricky and Adrian in the lead, Charlie and Kippy following, arm-in-arm. Another great thing about Engris was that absolutely no one there knew anything about human sexuality, nor even particularly cared. In galactic thinking, such things were a private matter between those people involved, and not something to be gawked at or remarked upon. Especially on Engris, where minding one's own business was the order of the day. Charlie and the others felt absolutely free here to be themselves, and could fully expect that not a single soul would have the slightest interest in what they were doing.

Charlie leaned closer to Kip as they walked along, and spoke quietly into his ear. "You were a little hard on Ricky back there, Kip. I think his feelings were hurt over that sensor get-up."

"He'll be okay," his boyfriend whispered back. "I couldn't let him wander around here dressed like that, with everyone snickering at him behind his back. Would it have been better if I'd just said he looked ridiculous?"

Charlie smiled at that, and squeezed Kip's hand. "No, I guess not."

"Well, then." Kippy's eyes were full of bright sparkles. "I love the guy, even if he does do goofy stuff sometimes. And there's Adrian to think of, too." But he looked ahead for a moment, watching as their friends made their way through the cloud, and then his expression softened. "But I'll give him a hug later and say I'm sorry."

Charlie just smiled, and squeezed his boyfriend's hand again.

They weaved in and out among the stands and stalls until they could see some of the shops lining the edge of the market square. Charlie spied Ragal then, the lanky alien visible by his height, and by the somewhat outlandish garb he had adopted since coming off his stint at feeling feminine at the end of the previous year. He had been an eyeful then, and was even more of one now. If anything, the man had gone too far the other way when retreating from his feminine side and become a poster boy for macho - or, perhaps an alien idea of macho, anyway.

He was dressed in a shiny black one-piece suit that had the look of wet reptilian scales about it. The outfit was embellished about the wrists and atop the shoulders with somewhat garish bits of what looked like chrome, though in the shapes of strangely-shaped bones and some particularly creepy claws, and which were good company to the large medallion of the same material he wore about his neck. That piece of jewelry somewhat resembled the naked skull in miniature of one of Earth's ancient raptor dinosaur species, though this representation seemed somehow even nastier and more dangerous. A black belt around Ragal's waist was adorned with a series of throwing stars of alien design, which much more resembled table saw blades than they did their human counterparts. And Ragal had shown himself in practice to be both familiar with and quite accurate at throwing the things, which had earned him Ricky's undying admiration, and caused Charlie to once again reassess the alien's abilities in a new light. Ragal was a man of many talents, it seemed, and not all of them as civilized as Charlie had first assumed.

Yet Ragal claimed that the garb was an expression of something transient, a feeling that would not last for long, and his daily demeanor had changed only slightly, with perhaps a bit more of the wild in his humor, and a willingness to play that had had all of them laughing. Ragal promised that this was just another phase he had to work his way through, and that soon he would be back to his more mellow and dull normal self. That was funny, because one thing Ragal never seemed to Charlie was dull, and he and Kippy had simply smiled at that declaration.

"You can't miss Ragal," Ricky said, grinning and pointing. "He looks like an ad for the alien branch of Hell's Angels."

Just the sight of the alien put a smile on Charlie's face. He laughed, and took the lead now as they crossed to where Ragal was standing. As the crowd between them thinned, they could make out the smaller forms of their friends, Horace Wingspanner and Casper, standing next to Ragal. The three of them were stopped before a stand that was occupied by a small, wan, roundish looking alien, that reminded Charlie immediately of a certain muffin company's doughboy, though one dressed in a sort of mesh body net that seemed to contain the fellow's mass and keep it from spilling all over the place.

Casper spied them coming and immediately waved, a smile spreading across his features. Kippy beamed at Charlie and surged ahead, reached Casper's side, and bent down to hug him. Horace grinned at that, and his eyes twinkled at Charlie and the others as they arrived. But the man raised a hand and held his index finger to his lips then in a request for silence, and then turned and used the same hand to indicate the alien merchant behind the counter.

" apparently completely functional, huff, huff," that one was telling Ragal. There was a wheezing quality to the vendor's voice which seemed somehow to strengthen the idea that the net clothing he wore was somehow constraining his body from pouring onto the ground.

Ragal gave an appreciative grunt. Their tall friend was turning over a small opalescent globe in his hands, which sparkled with radiant energy from deep within. "It looks to be in good condition."

"It is, huff,huff," the vendor agreed, waving his flabby-looking arms. "From the late plutocratic era of Dagosian empire, huff, huff. Made to last."

Ragal smiled at that. "Indeed? That puts its age at about ten-thousand standard years."

The merchant emitted a wheezing, pleased laugh. "See? Well-made, huff, huff."

"And you've tested it?" Ragal asked pleasantly.

The alien vendor looked momentarily stymied. "Well...huff, can test. Defies modern equipment at my disposal, huff, huff. But functionality seems apparent due to emitted energy readings."

Ragal nodded knowingly. "And you have some idea of what ancient Dagosian technology would consider normal operating parameters?"

This time the alien vendor emitted a raspy laugh. "No. You are too smart for me, huff, huff. This is why sign above says all items sold as is."

Ragal smiled and re-examined the small orb. "It does seem to be functioning, though."

"Money-back guarantee if not delighted, huff, huff."

"Um...yes. The price is a bit high, though," Ragal replied, and made as if to return the globe to the countertop. "I offer eighteen thousand, instead."

The vendor managed to look appalled, and clutched at his front as if having a heart attack of some sort. His belly wiggled alarmingly beneath the mesh outfit he wore, and for a moment Charlie thought the fellow was about to swoon. But a new glint appeared in the doughboy's dark eyes instead, and one chubby hand extended as if to accept the little globe from Ragal.

Apparently, the merchant thought that Ragal would suddenly snatch the artifact back and up his bid; but Ragal simply plopped the sphere into the merchant's hand and turned as if to go. For a second the doughboy seemed stunned; and then the other pudgy hand jerked forward. "Wait!"

Ragal's eyes smiled at Charlie for just a moment before the lanky alien turned back. "See here, fellow. I have places to be."

Charlie smiled at the erudite tone that Ragal was employing, as if he were some scholarly oldster out seeking items for a museum display or something, instead of a collector out looking for treasures. It was all a part of the buying game, Charlie decided, smiling to himself.

The chubby alien let out a distinctly defeated grunt, and extended the hand holding the globe. "Twenty thousand, huff, huff?"

Ragal crossed his arms then, and acted like he was going to refuse, when Casper suddenly reached up and tugged at one arm. Ragal looked surprised, but Charlie knew the man well enough now to discern when he was putting on, and tried not to smile as Ragal bent low and Casper whispered into his ear. Ragal pulled back and stared into Casper's large gray eyes a moment, and then emitted a fairly disgusted grunt of his own and straightened. He tried to smile then, but looked like he was having trouble pulling it off. "I'll split the difference with you, my good man. For the boy's sake. Nineteen thousand, and that is my final offer."

For just a second a shrewd light shone in the merchant's eyes as he examined Casper; but then he set the globe on the countertop and nodded, a motion which set his entire belly to wiggling beneath the mesh suit. "Done, huff, huff. Your account charged when you leave stand."

Ragal made a show of claiming the little globe and shaking his head as if he knew he had just been robbed at gunpoint; but then he suddenly smiled and bowed at the vendor. "An honor doing business with an astute seller like yourself."

The doughboy looked like he was sure that he was the one that had been robbed; but he also managed to bow as much as his round frame would allow. "Your intelligence exceeded only by your patience, huff, huff."

Kippy giggled quietly, and Charlie smiled then. It did sound like a sort of backhanded compliment, at that.

But Ragal seemed to take it in stride, and pocketed the globe even as he turned to face Charlie and the others. "Why...look who it is! I didn't see you standing there, my friends. We were just coming to meet you." He cast one more slightly dismissive look back at the vendor, and then extended his arms to gently herd Casper and Horace away from the stand.

"What did you buy?" Kippy whispered, after they had put some distance between themselves and the round vendor.

"Beats me," Ragal returned, grinning down at him.

Kippy stopped in his tracks and stared. "You paid nineteen thousand credits for something, and you don't even know what it is?"

"He knows what it is!" Casper called, laughing.

Horace moved to stand beside Charlie. "Indeed he does. Our friend here certainly has been entertaining today." The man smiled. "He's in a rare mood, I think."

Ragal took a deep breath, and let it sigh out in a satisfied manner. "Life is often humorous, Horace. I see no reason not to go along with that premise. This is a vacation, correct?"

"Correct," Horace agreed. He smiled again, and leaned forward. "Even though you live here now, we should consider this visit a chance for all of us to relax and have fun. That's your third purchase just this morning. I would consider that fun!"

Kippy looked more closely at Ragal. "Third purchase? Where's the other stuff?"

Horace laughed at that. "You do have to admire the way none of those items show in Ragal's pockets."

Ragal chuckled. "A little trick that Max taught me."

Charlie remembered then the 'no bulge' policy that the elves required of their clothing, and laughed. "Max can hide a bulldozer in his hip pocket. What else did you buy, Ragal?"

Kippy harumphed. "He didn't tell me yet what the globe thing was."

Ragal smiled patiently, and leaned down towards Kippy. "It's a time machine."

Kippy's eyes grew in size at that, and he turned his incredulous gaze on Charlie a moment before allowing it to slide back to Ragal. "You're kidding!"

Ragal nodded. "Somewhat. It's not a time machine in the way you are imagining, Kip. It's not a miracle device for allowing one to travel about the temporal highways."

Kippy's features scrunched up a bit, as if he now knew he had been had. "What other kind is there?"

The tall alien's face settled into an unreadable expression. "You recall your ring? My doorway back into this universe?"

"Sure. How could I ever forget that?"

Ragal looked back over his shoulder. "That merchant? He didn't really know what he had. He thought that little sphere was some sort of information storage device, a piece of technology manufactured by the Dagosians back when they were at the height of their power." Ragal smiled. "Ten thousand years? It is far older than that. A half-million years is more like it. And not Dagosian at all."

For a moment Ragal fell silent, as if remembering a distant past. Finally, Casper reached up and tugged at his friend's elbow. "Well, are you going to tell us?"

Adrian grinned. "The suspense is killing us!"

"And I'm hungry," Kippy stated, pointedly.

Ragal let out a gritty-sounding laugh, and turned to Kippy. "You recall your ring?"

"I think I answered that."

The tall alien looked amused, but dipped a hand into his pocket and brought forth the iridescent sphere. "The stone in your ring. Imagine it twice that size, and with the dust and grime of ages removed from its surface." Ragal extended his hand and opened his fingers, displaying the sphere on his palm. "It might look like this, don't you think?"

Kippy stared at the orb with new interest, and so did Charlie, seeing now where Ragal was going. "Are you saying this is another stone like the one in the ring? A repository of...what did you call it?"

"Savva," Ragal supplied. "That which is left when the body is removed. The essence of each of us, if you will."

"Like the soul," Adrian said softly.

"If you wish," Ragal agreed. "Though I have read of the human concept of the soul and it is not entirely the same as the reality of savva. But as an expression of essence, it will do nicely."

Charlie pointed at the sphere. "This one has others inside it? Or attached to it, or whatever the link is? Like you were, with Kippy's ring?"

Ragal nodded. "Yes. Though at this point in time, none of the savva are emergent. None are waiting for the right moment for rebirth, as I was with Kip and the ring."

Ricky pointed at the sphere. "Your people made that?"

"Yes. Or, it was made in the time when my people were ascendant in this galaxy. If not by my own kind, then by someone who possessed the same technology."

"So we're going to have more visitors?" Kippy asked, his eyes going wide.

"No." Ragal sighed, and brought the orb up closer to his eyes. The pearl winked at him then, a sort of pleasant light that bathed Ragal's face in a certain timelessness for a moment, and to which he smiled. "But as you can see, we have an affinity. The orb has chosen me, and I it. So I will be its bearer, until the time comes when another will take his turn." The tall alien nodded. "And I will be its keeper, safeguarding the rights of those savva for whom this might be a way back to life."

Kippy smiled, and patted Ragal affectionately. "What else did you get?"

"Just trinkets, Kip. Two items that spoke to me of distant times and far away places, but no more. Nothing I can identify, save that they seemed worth possessing." Ragal smiled around at them. "What did you boys buy?"

All eyes went to Ricky then, who looked slightly uncomfortable at the attention. "Oh, uh...nothing, really. I just got a trinket, like you said."

"We didn't see anything that really grabbed us," Adrian added, coming to his boyfriend's rescue. "There's always next time, I guess."

"That is one of the wonders of the market here," Ragal agreed. "It's never quite the same place twice."

"Did you see Max and Sefton?" Charlie asked then. "We were all thinking about having lunch."

Casper stuck up his hand. "I heard them saying they were going to the shop of Durapar."

Charlie looked around at the others. "I never heard of it."

"Him," Ragal corrected. "One of the longtime merchants and residents of Engris." He smiled. "A power user."

Charlie blinked at that. "Really? What do you think Max wanted there?"

"It wasn't Max that caused that trip to occur," Casper said. "It was Sefton. He said that Durapar was interested in meeting other power users. Especially from unfamiliar empire races."

Ragal nodded. "Durapar is a scholarly sort, interested in the mental sciences. I have spoken with him on several occasions. I told Max it might be worth his time to go."

Ricky made a grumbling sound. "Well, I hope the shop of this guy is near one of the food stands. I'm hungry!"

Charlie heard a soft chuckle, and turned to Horace and smiled at him. "Having fun?"

"Of course. It was a wonderful day when I met you boys. That wonder has been with me ever since!"

Charlie laughed. "I have a feeling you've been finding wonder for a long time. Before you met us, even."

"In some regards, that's true." The man's eyes smiled. "I think it's just a matter of scale here."

Kippy patted Horace on the shoulder. "Are you hungry?"

"As a matter of fact, breakfast was quite early, wasn't it, Casper?"

"Too early! I'm ready to eat!"

Everyone smiled at that. "Sounds like we have a plan," Adrian said.

"Let's go collect Max and Sefton, then," Ricky added, turning slowly to look around the edge of the market. "Ragal, if you'll just point the way?"

"Better I take you there. Giving directions never seems to do the trick here in the marketplace. Things have a way of moving around, if you know what I mean."

With that the tall alien turned and started off, waving a hand to indicate that the others should follow him. Kippy took Casper by the hand and they hurried off, laughing and talking and catching up on the day. Adrian grabbed Ricky by the hand and pulled him into motion, causing Ricky to cast a happy grin Charlie's way as he followed. Charlie laughed, and turned to Horace. "Shall we?"

"Of course."

They started off at a trot and caught the others, and then made their way through the throngs of shoppers, letting Ragal part the ways. It was surprising the way that happened, as Ragal was neither the tallest nor the bulkiest patron there, by far. But people just seemed to note him coming and step back to allow him and his retinue to pass, all without really seeming to notice any of them.

They soon arrived at the edge of the square, and Ragal turned right and proceeded along the shop fronts. Business was booming here, too. Every shop window had its lookers, gazing in through the transparent front of the shop at the often mysterious items that lived within. Charlie could see that most of the shops had at least one browser inside, but usually more. Yet most shops had but one proprietor, with an occasional automated assistant of some kind looking after those with questions. The air was still one of personal attention that no larger store would ever be able to provide.

"There," Ragal said, pointing ahead of them.

The shop in question had a respectable facade, with none of the garish illumination or action ads that some shopkeepers used to draw attention. The air of the place was low-key, and the signage announcing it as the place of business of one Durapar, small and simply presented. Charlie liked that immediately. In the marketplace of Engris, no advertising was sometimes the best advertising.

They couldn't see anyone within through the transparent facade, but that the place was open was apparent. The door slid aside as they arrived in front of it, and the seven of them entered. The door closed quietly behind them, while a brief chime sounded somewhere in the back of the store.

The murmur of voices came to them then, and Sefton appeared at the doorway to the back of the shop and looked out. "Ah. My friends! We are here."

Ragal led the way past the counter, but stopped short of entering the back of the shop. "We don't want to get in the middle of business, if that is what is happening."

The big Molokar, owner of the finest tour agency on Engris, grunted out a cordial laugh. "Drinking vith and telling war stories, not business. Come."

They followed the big man back, and arrived in a large room set up like a warehouse, with row upon row of shelving containing goods of all sorts, but none of which Charlie could readily identify. In front of these rows of shelving was a cleared area, hosting a low, round table, around which seating was placed, and where sat Max and an alien whose species Charlie had never seen before. Presumably Durapar, the alien put Charlie immediately in mind of a small ostrich, one with longish legs, a rather smaller body than the earthly bird would possess, and skinny arms where the wings would be. The parts of the body that showed were covered with a striking greenish fur.

Durapar was dressed in satiny blues with burgundy piping along the short sleeves and short legs of the outfit, and wore a number of ornate rings on his smallish hands, which each had three fingers and an opposable thumb at each side. The garment he wore had a sort of scarf attached at the top, which wound around Durapar's long neck and was tied in a glorious knot like a bow tie just under his chin. The alien's feet were encased in brief shoes that more resembled sandals, and which were rimmed in the same burgundy accents as his clothing.

Charlie estimated that Durapar might be five feet tall standing, but he had already come to understand that size and appearance had no bearing on the competency or capabilities of anyone. Durapar's look was slightly comical, which only made Charlie's determination not to notice that grow even more resolute. If they had learned anything in their time out among the stars, it was that you could never judge anyone by how they appeared.

The alien turned interested blue eyes upon the newcomers, and took a sip from the long-stemmed glass he held in one hand. "Your compatriots, I would imagine."

Max, seated across from Durapar, put down the more conventional glass he was holding and grinned up at them. "Hey, fellas!"

Sefton circled the table and sat down on a supersized seat and folded his hands in front of himself, smiling at Charlie. "Now things get interesting."

Kippy raised an eyebrow and looked at Charlie. "What does that mean?"

Max jumped to his feet and made a motion with his hands. More seating appeared around the table, to which the elf waved his other hand. "Why don't you guys take a break?"

"Well, we were actually heading off to eat lunch," Charlie said, not immediately moving. "We just thought you'd want to come along."

"Sure, sure. In good time, guys. But first...sit a minute and have a listen, okay? I think I may have a little job for us that will interest you guys."

Kippy immediately put his hands on his hips. "A job? We're on vacation, remember?"

"Yes, I do." Max's expression grew more serious. "An important job? One that matters to all of Engris?"

Charlie reached out and took Kippy by the arm, and started him towards the seats. "Won't hurt to listen, Kip."

But Kippy had heard the same change in the elf's tone, and simply nodded. They all took seats, and then looked at Max expectantly.

"First of all, this is Durapar. He's an Andaleesian, and a power user like us."

Max introduced everyone to Durapar, who offered a broad smile to each one of them in turn, an action that made his face look almost like a cartoon caricature of an ostrich. Charlie could see the charm in the situation, and that Durapar was going to test him - all of them - until they got used to the oddness of his appearance. The others all looked like they were trying hard to keep a straight face, with only Ragal and Casper looking as calm and relaxed as they always did.

Charlie smiled. "Nice to meet you, Durapar. We are always interested in any friends of Max and Sefton, of course."

"So kind of you to say." The translation of Durapar's Andaleesian language was smooth and competent, indicating a structure and usage at least similar enough to English to not baffle their interpretive gear. Or, that Durapar's race had been on the galactic scene for a long time - enough time for the language to fully seep into the general database of translations.

"We was just talking," Max put in then. "Durapar's people are the closest thing to Pacha's kind in ability I've seen yet."

"You mean in the things they can do?" Kippy asked, sitting forward to examine their new friend more closely. "I do sense a lot of things from him. He does feel a little bit like Pacha."

"I am anxious to meet your Kifta friend, the next time he is in port," Durapar said, real excitement entering his voice now. "It's already been amazing meeting Max." The Andaleesian's eyes made a slow circuit of the new arrivals, and the smile returned. "And now all of you. I sense much of interest from all of you!"

Ricky frowned, looking over at Charlie. "I'm surprised we haven't heard of these people already. I thought the Moth were some of the best power users around?"

A look of what could only be disgust crossed Durapar's face. "In brute force they are of superior ability to my kind, but in finesse and variety? No. The Moth are thugs, to our way of thinking."

Adrian laughed at that. "To a lot of people's way of thinking!"

"We agree on that," Max said. "Durapar's people see power using more like Pacha's do, as a study of the mind thing. An art. Something to place value on, not to use as a weapon to slug people with."

Charlie smiled at that, but a lot of information had come with the last few exchanges. The Andaleesians apparently understood power using across a greater spectrum than the Moth, but their actual abilities were not on the same level of power as those dark masters of one of the most powerful of the five empires. But the Moth themselves were not all that hot, either. Pacha's people were much more powerful with their ka, and the elves of earth even more so. That made Charlie relax some. He remembered the Beltracians all too well, and how they had been of sufficient power to press Pacha hard after kidnapping him., and to challenge a group of elves assembled to rescue him. Power using was a gift in the right hands; but in the wrong ones, it could be a deadly peril.

Charlie had already decided he liked Durapar. The alien's slightly goofy smile was genuine, and grew on you quickly. And if Max liked him, that was more than enough for Charlie. Fooling Max was not something most people could do.

"So what's this job about?" he asked, putting away the slightly hollow feeling of hunger in his stomach. Lunch would have to wait.

Max looked over at Durapar, and then shook his head. "Engris may be in trouble."

Kippy's hand spasmed against Charlie's, and the boy leaned forward. "How can Engris be in trouble?"

"Engris is a tremendous artifact," Durapar said then, holding his hands up as if to take in the entire world. "Its technology is far in advance of what exists within the five empires today. The Elders seemed to think of everything in its construction, and there is certainly nothing else quite like it here in the Aphotic Zone."

"He means the Cooee," Max supplied, at the blank expressions that appeared all around. "And Durapar's people call the ones that made Engris 'the Elders'."

Kippy smiled at that. "Well, all we ever called them was the people that made Engris".

"Yeah," Ricky agreed. "They must have had a name, though."

"It has not survived them," Durapar said sadly. "But they must have been a grand people to have seen the universe the way that they did."

Charlie looked over at Ragal, who immediately noticed and smiled at him. "Can I help you with something, Charlie?"

" come from the same period in time when this place was built. Don't you know anything about the race was that created this place?"

"You've asked me this before, Charlie. I don't, I'm afraid." Ragal smiled in sympathy at Charlie's obvious disappointment. "It's a very big galaxy, Charlie. While those that know of this place today say it was constructed in my time, it was not known to me. I had to wait until coming to you in the present to visit this place." He looked about the warehouse-like rear of the store with obvious fascination. "It is one of the most intriguing puzzles I have ever been faced with."

Durapar leaned forward to stare at Ragal, his blue eyes wide with interest. " come from the time when Engris was built? You never mentioned that before. How is this possible?"

"It's kinda a long story," Max said, a slight note of impatience creeping into his voice. "You guys can talk about that later. For now, let's stick with why we're here."

Durapar blinked his eyes rapidly a few times, but then smiled and sat back in his seat. He lifted his long-stemmed glass and took another sip of vith. "Of course. The matter at hand."

"Durapar works with my people," Sefton explained then. The Molokar were the closest thing to a governing body that Engris had - at least among the new arrivals. They did look out for the details of keeping the port and settlement towns of Engris running smoothly. And they believed wholeheartedly in the planet's own edict of peace and goodwill to all, and worked tirelessly to ensure that Engris would not have to do all the work of keeping the undesirable element in check.

Charlie found Sefton's statement interesting. "So you are somehow affiliated with your government here?"

The big Molokar laughed good-naturedly at that. "All Molokar part of Engris. All Molokar work to keep Engris safe. No real government, though. Molokar do not own Engris."

"My people and the Molokar have worked together for a long time, trying to understand Engris more fully," Durapar told them. "I have become as close to a specialist in this world as any among my kind."

Charlie nodded. "So why do you think the planet is in trouble?"

The alien took another sip from his glass, obviously trying to find the right words to use. Charlie and the others waited patiently, knowing there was not going to be a way to rush to this.

But finally, Durapar made an annoyed sound and set his glass back on the table. "Would it be pressing the bounds of your credulity for me to simply say it's a feeling I have?"

Charlie considered that. Kippy looked over at him, his eyebrows raised, and Charlie could almost read his boyfriend's mind: sometimes, a feeling is all you've got. That notion agreed with Charlie's own opinion, and Charlie took that as his cue on what to say next.

"No. It wouldn't be hard for us to believe at all. Sometimes, a feeling is all you have." Kippy smiled and squeezed Charlie's hand, and Charlie had to smile in response. "We've learned to trust our feelings," he finished.

Durapar looked relieved. "There have not been any other power users here except Sefton that I feel I can trust to share the way I feel. When Sefton mentioned your group to me, I had to meet you." The alien examined Charlie carefully. "You're the leader?"

Charlie did a double-take at that, and then laughed.

"Yeah," Max said, before Charlie could speak. "Charlie is our leader."

Charlie stared at the elf in surprise, and Max grinned at him. "Something?"

"Charlie is the spiritual guide behind our operation," Ragal said seriously. "But what we do is a sort of group thing, really. All of us contribute what we can."

"I'll go with that," Max agreed. "But Charlie pretty much has the final say in whether or not we take on any, um... jobs."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, a warning not to contest what the others were saying. Charlie hadn't planned to do that, but it was comforting to have Kippy on his side. But where this conversation might be going, even Charlie couldn't guess.

"I sensed as much already," Durapar said, sitting back. "That I had to convince you first, Charlie."

Charlie looked around at the others, and every eye was on him. For a moment he felt slightly beleaguered; but these were his friends, and simply wanted to know that he felt comfortable with whatever was happening here now. He sighed, just a little. Another decision. But the feeling that they were right where they were supposed to be just now was strong, and that gave him comfort. He turned to look at Kippy, who smiled at him, his eyes conveying the love and trust the he felt inside. I go where you go.

Charlie smiled in return, took a breath, let it slide slowly back out, and then turned his smile on Durapar.

"Okay. We're listening. Tell us your story."

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