Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

"My people have a strain of adventurism in them, just as most races do," Durapar told them. "Yet this was not my original reason for coming to Engris. I was fascinated by the tales of the spirit domes, and what they represented. The technology, of course; but it was the idea that some part of life remained after the death of the body. Some organization of forces persisted that allowed for awareness to continue. I wanted to know more about that."

"We've felt some of that curiosity," Charlie confirmed. He smiled. "That sense of wonder. We have departed friends we have been able to meet again at the domes. It's actually a wonderful thing."

Durapar took a sip of his drink and waved a hand. "But you are power users. That makes all the difference."

Kippy turned puzzled eyes on Charlie before aiming them back at the Andaleesian. "How does that matter?"

"It makes all the difference. In my studies of the domes, I have determined that the experience is not quite the same for those that are not like us."

Adrian leaned forward. "How is it different? They can't see the spirits like we can?"

"No, they can see them. But there is apparently some element of the mind of the power user that assists with organizing what manifests at the domes into people we have known. Non-power users vary in their ability to perceive what occurs there. Some see their lost ones just as we do. Others simply see misty apparitions that could be almost anything, while yet others have an even more negative experience, and are frightened. This would seem to be the main reason for the legends that abound that this world is haunted."

"Is true," Sefton agreed. "Is why I always stay with floater car when you visit domes. What I see in domes is disturbing. Not wish to repeat the experience."

"That's the situation with many hauntings," Horace said. "People often do not recognize the things they see and hear."

"Misinterpretation of the data," Charlie agreed, nodding. "I mean, the information that enters your eyes and ears. I can understand how that would change things."

"It also suggests something else important," Ragal put in, his expression thoughtful. "That the builders of Engris were themselves power users."

Durapar looked delighted. "Exactly. The spirit domes are designed to interact with the minds of power users, and those without such mental abilities can get a much less clear idea of what is happening."

"That doesn't seem right," Ricky put in quickly. "We have friends - Mike and Bobby - who are not power users. But they see the same things we do at the dome. Bobby even got to see his grandmother."

"Ah. They are of your race?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes."

Durapar offered up his slightly goofy smile. "Your kind counts power users among the population, though from what Max tells me, not all of you are yet fully aware. But that means that your kind are power users, whether all are currently active or not. So I think that means that all of your people will experience the domes in the same fashion, no matter their current level of awareness. It is a quality present within your minds, whether in active use or not."

Ricky laughed. "Who knew?"

"Just a second," Charlie said, looking at Sefton anew. "Something you said just seeped in. You said that the Molokar are power users."

"Indeed they are, but of a different sort. Your kind and mine are active power users. At least, that is what I term them. Our minds have the ability to redirect power from the universal flow itself and use it to mold our environment." Durapar leaned forward then, his big blue eyes bright with anticipation. "But there is another kind of power user, in case you did not know. These I term passive power users. They are sensitive to the universe in other ways than are we, and while they generally cannot manipulate physical forces as we do, they do seem able to interact with the universe in ways that we can only imagine."

Ragal raised a hand and smiled. "Here."

Charlie nodded. "Oh, I get it."

Durapar turned and indicated Sefton. "The Molokar are passive power users. They are sensitive, but in a different way. This accounts for Sefton's wariness of the domes. His mind senses much more of the underlying forces in action in the domes, altering the experience of meeting those departed that arrive there."

"He sees the man behind the curtain," Horace mused, nodding. "Instead of just the wizard onstage."

"Wow," Adrian offered, looking impressed. "Are there a lot of passive power users out there?"

"It is my conclusion that the passive power users outnumber the active sort quite handily."

"Wow," Adrian said again. Ricky grinned at that, and put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and gave him a brief hug.

"So what about everybody else?" Kippy asked. "The people that are neither one of those kind of power users?"

"Isolates. They see the universe only with their physical senses. They are the most common form of intelligent life in the galaxy."

Charlie nodded. "And the isolates? They would have the most trouble seeing spirits in the domes?"

"Not necessarily." Durapar smiled at that. "It is the turn of mind of the beholder, so to speak, as much as anything. The Molokar have none of the normal talents associated with what we term power users. Their talents are passive. Yet they are sensitives, able to read other species rather more intently than most, and have certain talents of their own that fall under a study called --" Durapar frowned a moment, as if thinking.

"Gospa," Sefton supplied, looking amused. "I am Gospeth, myself."

"I've heard of that," Ricky said immediately. He turned to Charlie and smiled, and patted the hilt of his vibratory dagger. "From the guy who sold me this."

"I remember," Charlie said, nodding.

"How does this affect what we want to do?" Kippy asked. "Most people that come here don't do it for the domes, anyway."

"True." Durapar made a very human-like nod, but it was accompanied by a spreading and waving of his small ears that again made the action seem humorous. Charlie just smiled, his liking for the little alien going up another notch. "But it does bring us to the crux of what I wish to convey to you," Durapar continued. "The matter of the builders of Engris being power users."

Charlie shook his head. "But these Elders are gone, aren't they? You speak as if they're still around."

Durapar set his glass on the table and briefly tapped his fingertips together. "I'm assuming they are still around, if only in that other reality now. In death." The alien's expression took on a touch of amazement. "To all appearances, they built an entire world that functioned as a meeting place for themselves and those members of their race that had departed this reality. I originally thought that those that created Engris did so entirely for their own use. I thought the fact that other races can also use Engris for the same purpose was just an aside to the original matter." Durapar leaned forward again, his eyes intent. "I've changed my thinking about that."

Kippy emitted a soft grunt. "Are you suggesting the Elders wanted other races to use Engris?"

Durapar nodded. "I now think it was part of their purpose, yes. Perhaps not originally, but later. I think that Engris was deliberately left running exactly because the Elders hoped that others would find the world and use it."

"They saw a need?" Casper asked, speaking up for the first time. "For the future?"

The Andaleesian looked surprised at Casper's deduction, and let his eyes circle the watching faces. "Yes. I think they knew that, at some future point, they would need to contact others."

"Meaning them over there, contacting people over here," Ricky said, thoughtfully. "Like us, maybe?"

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, a signal that his boyfriend was feeling something positive about what was being said. But by that point Charlie was having his own feelings on the matter, and simply nodded.

"It actually makes a kind of sense," he said, considering the idea more carefully. Feeling the rightness of it, somehow. He looked around at the others. "I mean, think about it. These Elders apparently died out at some point in our universe. But they left Engris running, and apparently with instructions to seek out those in need of...of a place to go. In need of help. But to also screen out those that would abuse or misuse this word's secrets." Charlie nodded again, the idea growing in his mind. "We never find Engris. It finds us when we want or need to come here. But the place cannot be found by anyone that wants to use the planet for the wrong reasons. At least, they don't find it more than once. And that one time, once Engris knows what they're about, they get kicked out in a hurry."

Kippy was watching him, his eyes searching Charlie's face. He had picked up on Charlie's new acceptance of what Durapar had said, and seemed happy about it. The way he squeezed Charlie's hand seemed positive, anyway.

Kippy turned to gaze at Durapar now. "When we talk to our friends Billy and Will at the spirit dome, they say sometimes that they see many alternate outcomes for the things we do. That some things can go many different ways." Kip's eyebrows went up as if to accent what he was saying. "If the Elders passed on, and started to see things in the future, that could go one way or the other depending on who was involved and what they did --"

"--they would tell that to the living members of their race they had left behind," Adrian finished, looking surprised. But he immediately looked embarrassed after that, and shrugged apologetically at Kip. "Sorry."

Kippy just smiled. "Great minds think alike."

Ricky patted his boyfriend's shoulder comfortingly, and turned to Charlie. "If they saw events that would someday happen after all the Elders were dead - when there were no more of them alive in this reality - then leaving Engris running makes a lot of sense. They would want to attract the kind of people here that would and could help them at that future time."

"Maybe." Charlie turned back to Durapar. "Go on."

But the alien simply smiled. "Your group has already grasped most of what I told Max earlier."

"Told ya they were good," Max said, grinning.

Charlie shook his head. "That can't be all. If the Elders wanted to make contact with people here, why haven't they done it?"

Max shrugged. "This was about as far as Durapar and I got before you guys came in. There's a little bit more, but I'll let him tell you."

The Andaleesian once again offered his charming nod. "Yes. We hadn't finished talking." He looked around the group again. "It's possible it's just not the right time yet. But...I have come to think that we have not been contacted because we are not in the right place."

Charlie's gaze slid from Max back to Durapar. "We're here, on Engris. You mean somewhere specific on the planet?"

"Yes. It's my feeling that we're looking for something more refined in the way of being at the right place than just being present on Engris itself."

Kippy gave a chuckle. "We know all about feeling things."

Durapar seemed to find that idea reassuring. "It is something that most power users can understand."

"Well, we get it," Adrian confirmed. "I'm feeling now that what you're feeling is important."

Durapar gave a small, almost whimsical sigh. "One of my talents as a power user is that I am drawn to places. I see these places, in fact, even though I have never been to them before. So I was thinking that maybe the reason that no contact had yet been made was that no one visiting Engris had yet found the right place to be for it to occur."

"You mean the right dome?" Kippy asked. "There are a lot of them, I've been told."

"Approximately seventeen thousand of them, in cities all over the surface of Engris," Durapar supplied.

Kippy's eyes bugged out a little at that. "I thought the domes were all the same. How would we find the right one?"

Charlie had a feeling of his own. "I don't think he means a dome, Kip."

Durapar scratched the tip of his long nose. "Correct. I do not believe that it's a dome we are looking for. There is another place, I think."

Ragal leaned closer to Durapar, obviously fascinated with what was being said. "You think you may have had a mental view of the correct place?"

"Exactly that. Among the visions of places I have had since I first came to Engris, is one that recurs far too often for it to be chance."

Ragal considered that a moment before speaking again. "And you feel certain that this place you see is here on Engris?"

"Approximately." Durapar tapped a shoe upon the hard floor beneath them. "I sense that this place is below ground. Somewhere inside Engris."

Ragal turned to smile at Max. "I think I see where this is going."

The elf laughed. "Well, maybe. If we can get a handle on what Durapar sees in his vision, we might be able to follow the trail."

Charlie frowned at that. "You're considering using the same method we used to get to Pacha and the others when their ship was crushed under the ice?"

"The possibility occurred to me that it might work. If Durapar can get you to see what he sees, and you use your split presence to go there, Rick can help me tag along, and once I'm there I can teleport everyone in."

Durapar brought his hands together and smiled his goofy smile. "Wonderful! Such abilities are not known among my race. I have not been able to convince enough of my people to take active steps to find this underground location. Some are convinced that Engris would see probing the interior as an attack, and ban us from this world forever. Without a consensus, I have been unable to act."

"I don't know that that would actually happen," Ragal returned. "Engris seems extraordinarily capable at sensing motivation. I would like to think that it would understand that any attempt to enter the interior of this world by any safe means would not be an attack. And besides, any ruling to eject you for such a misdemeanor, were it to happen, would not include the rest of your kind."

"That is also my feeling. But tell that to those who fear the idea of probing the planet at all. There are too many that feel that meddling in the secret business of this world would be the same as to risk losing our presence here. To many of my people, Engris is a supreme mystery, never to be really understood by others."

"You haven't tried scanning for this place you've seen?" Charlie asked.

"No. The interior of Engris is shielded from all sensory-type probing. I would need to employ a surveyor device of some sort, which would actually burrow into the surface to have a look at what is beneath. The fact that sensors will not probe the interior of Engris is proof enough to many of my people that this world will not tolerate a closer inspection of its technologies. So some other form of investigation than I can manage on my own will be needed."

Charlie turned to Max. "What do you think? Would we be trespassing by entering the interior of Engris by this means? I don't want to lose our welcome here, either."

The elf shrugged. "I think we'd be warned first, Charlie. Or just plain stopped. Getting kicked off this planet is harder than you think." He smiled. "Engris is a pretty tolerant sort."

"What about the domes?" Ricky asked then. "You know...the holes in the floor that go down to the center of the planet? Couldn't we take a small flyer and go down one of them?"

"They're covered with shields that are impermeable to normal matter," Durapar answered, giving a small shake to his head. "Safety precautions to keep visitors from falling into them. The field could possibly be disrupted, but again it might be considered a violent act by the planet." The Andaleesian gave forth a slightly rattling sigh. "We just don't know how Engris will react to some things."

Casper looked up at Ragal, who noticed his gaze immediately, and smiled. "Something you wish to add, my friend?"

"Yes. Engris knows what is in our hearts. We wouldn't be planning evil. We wouldn't be intending harm. Isn't that what is important here? We'd be trying to help, not hurt."

That seemed to burst the dam, and everyone started talking at once. Max raised his hands, trying to quiet them, and when that didn't work, whistled sharply to get everyone's attention. "Whoa, fellas. Hold up a minute."

"I think you've caught everyone's interest, anyway," Charlie told him drily.

The elf laughed at that. "Yeah. Listen fellas, let's not get ahead of ourselves."

"It's just healthy speculation," Ragal replied, smiling. "You've already encouraged that by bringing us here." He turned and placed a hand on Casper's shoulder, and gave the boy a squeeze. "I happen to agree with Casper. Engris isn't going see anything we do as an attack, because we aren't attacking. My feeling is that the worst we face will be a gentle denial of some sort, letting us know that we are not to go further."

Adrian leaned forward to look past Ricky at Ragal. "What kind of denial do you mean?"

"I can't answer that. But suspecting as we do now that Engris was constructed by a race of power users, we should also expect that they understood how to deal with such abilities. Just as the Moth use dampers which flatten power-using within their range, to keep opponents among their own kind from spying on them, I would think there would be technological safeguards here to keep power users in check should the need arise."

"So we might just not be able to do anything," Ricky said, frowning. "But then at least we would know."

Charlie turned to Horace and smiled at the man. "You've been very quiet."

The ghost hunter returned the smile. "I am so far outside my experience now that I can't even think of anything to say, Charlie." But then he leaned forward. "Well...maybe that's not true. I kind of agree with Casper and Ragal, I suppose. This marvelous place seems to think of everything. So I have to agree that if there are things here we really shouldn't be doing, we will either be told that in some way, or prevented from doing them, which amounts to the same thing."

Charlie smiled at that. "You have faith in Engris?"

The older man laughed. "That's pretty much saying it, yes." Horace raised his shoulders and lowered them, and sighed, and Charlie could see the satisfaction the man was feeling. "Engris is the product of a kind people, Charlie. It shows in everything I have seen here. I would be shocked to be treated in any way that was less than fair by the spirit of this world."

Kippy laughed at that, and leaned up against Charlie. "See? Yet another convert to the idea that Engris is much more than a big ball of dirt."

"Yeah." Charlie was satisfied that this was the way he felt, too. Engris was much more than just a place. It was an expression of an ethos, the guiding principle of a race that had vanished from the known universe some unknown part of a half-million years past. Engris gave real meaning to the human expression of a people 'being known by their works'. Engris was a haven, among other things, where the sometimes cruel hand of the galaxy could never reach. "I also feel that this is the right way to go. We need to explore this further."

Durapar held up his hands and clasped them in delight. "Oh, wonderful! I had such high hopes after meeting Max, and now you have confirmed them."

Charlie held up a hand. "But we don't just go barging in, okay? We need to scope this out a little bit." He turned to Sefton. "How will the Molokar react to us snooping around the place?"

"Not at all, Charlie. My people know Engris. If you are allowed to do what you are doing, Engris agrees with you. You stopped by Engris, Molokar not need do anything. Everybody wins."

Charlie laughed at the look on the big man's face. "I'll take that to mean we won't be interfered with. I wouldn't like the idea of a crowd of cops each the size of you showing up at just the wrong moment to tell us we're in the wrong."

Sefton's eyes were full of laughter. "Molokar been doing this long time. Know when to mind own business and find other things to do."

"But you'll go along with us, right?" Ricky asked. "We'd love to have you."

Sefton considered that, and then nodded. "Will go as far as can. Not guarantee anything if spirits appear."

"Fair enough," Charlie agreed. "But I doubt we'll find anything to fear."

The Molokar was silent a moment, but then grunted. "Not fear that keeps me from spirit domes. Have trouble seeing things there. Hurts inside my head. More pain than fear."

A round of silence greeted that revelation. After a moment of it, Charlie turned to Max. "What do you make of that?"

Max seemed less surprised than the others. "Dunno. The brain is a funny animal, Charlie. There are some things we can see and hear that feel like pain to the brain. Nothin' would surprise me that happens here. Sefton's people are just different from any of us. But I believe him if he says the experience is painful."

"We don't want you to be hurt," Kippy said, shaking his head. He looked at Charlie. "Tell him he doesn't have to come, Charlie."

But Sefton held up a large hand. "Will make decision myself. Will go along, and only stop if find situation too painful. Interest in welfare of Engris greater than worry over minor discomfort."

Kippy smiled at that. "You're a sweetie, Sefton."

The big alien looked briefly embarrassed. "Will take that compliment in spirit in which offered."

"You'd better." Kippy looked over at Charlie. "So what's our next step?"

Ricky reached over and patted Charlie's knee. "Yeah, boss. What's our next move?"

Casper emitted a squeaky laugh at that, and everyone grinned at Charlie.

Charlie nodded good-naturedly, not letting the gentle kidding get to him. "Lunch first, I think. I'm still hungry."

"I know a wonderful place to eat," Durapar said, waving his hands excitedly. "I can contact Mertril and get the back room of her place. We'll have complete privacy in which to talk. And to eat, of course."

Charlie nodded. "You good with this, Kip?"

"Need you even ask?"


His boyfriend smiled and squeezed his hand. "I'm good with this plan."

Charlie nodded, and turned to Ricky and Adrian. "And you guys?"

"Of course, Charlie. Tell him, Rick."

"Yeah, Adrian's right. You know we're coming."

"Uh huh. Casper?"

"Yes. This feels right to me, Charlie. And exciting!"

Charlie laughed, and then turned the grin at Ragal. "I wouldn't even try to stop you from going."

The tall man laughed. "I am in favor of this plan so far. If I change my mind, I'll let you know."

Charlie turned to Max, who gave him a toothy grin. "I was here first, remember?"

"Yeah." Finally, Charlie turned to Horace. "I didn't mean to leave you out."

"I don't feel left out at all, Charlie. Just excited about having a new adventure."

Charlie laughed. "Sounds like another yes."

"Of course it is. You haven't disappointed me yet!"

Charlie sighed, and swiveled back to Durapar. "You say you know a good place to eat?"

"Yes, Charlie." Durapar grinned his goofy grin, now liberally laced with excitement, and Charlie had to smile in return.

"Okay. Everyone, let's go eat."

Mertril turned out to be another Andaleesian, obviously older than Durapar, but sharing his good humor. She was somewhat more colorful than Durapar, with some striking shades of red tipping some of her green fur, and a touch of gray here and there, which seemed to signal experience to Charlie as much as age. Her shop was called The Missing Ingredient, and apparently sold foodstuffs from all over known space, and then some. There were a fair number of patrons inside, some just browsing, others being dealt with by one or the other of the two Andaleesian clerks. There seemed to be a pair of artificial lifeforms employed there as well, obviously machines, but resembling the Andaleesians themselves closely enough as to leave no doubt about their origins.

Mertril and Durapar moved off to one side a moment to talk, while the new arrivals stood around looking at the contents of the various containers that seemed to be everywhere. The shop occupied what appeared to be two original shop spaces, with the wall between them removed. The place was filled with cabinets, bins, hoppers, barrels, shelves, and even chests of all kinds, each containing something from somewhere that was edible by someone. An array of technologies was in place to keep everything fresh, for while Engris existed in the no-time of the Cooee, it was a relative state compared to the normal universe, and there was some incremental passage of time on the world itself, or everything would simply be frozen in one single moment of time.

"I didn't know that," Charlie said, when Max explained it to him. "I thought no time passed at all here."

"It doesn't, compared to the normal time frame of our universe. The Cooee is described as timeless, but there is time here. For the most part it moves so slowly that it's not noticeable at all, but there are parts of the Cooee where it runs faster, or backwards, or some other variation. There has to be some movement of time here, Charlie, or there would be no experiencing this place at all."

Kippy, standing next to Charlie, sighed dramatically. "And yet another cherished belief dashed to pieces!"

Charlie grinned at that. "Well, I guess we just never really talked about it in enough depth. Everyone always refers to this place as no-time, and I guess I was taking that literally."

"It is no-time, relative to back on Earth," Max explained patiently. "You could stay here for years, and then go back to Earth, and no time would have passed there but what you spent getting the ship down to the surface of the planet. But that don't mean no time at all passes here. It's just so slow it can hardly be counted."

"It doesn't seem slower here than on Earth," Kippy said pleasantly.

Max raised one eyebrow skeptically, certain he was being led around by the nose. "That's because you're immersed in the time flow here, and it's all relative. Now I know you get this, so let's move on."

"I got it, anyway," Charlie returned, smiling. "So we'll be back to Earth in time for the fireworks, no matter how long this new business takes. Right?"

"Right." Max sighed. "I can finagle that, anyway. Stop worrying about the holiday, Charlie."

"I'm not worrying about the holiday. Kip is worrying about the holiday. He's the one that would be heartbroken to miss the fireworks." Charlie smiled. "I'm just worrying about Kip worrying about the holiday!"

Kippy tossed his head back and laughed, and snuggled closer to Charlie, hugging his arm. "I love you!"

"Me, too, Kip." Charlie hugged his boyfriend back.

Max rolled his eyes. "Let's just stop worrying about time, and start worrying about this food. If I don't eat soon, I can't be responsible for what happens!"

Durapar returned then, with Mertril by his side, and made introductions all around. Mertril's eyes were a striking shade of aquamarine, and filled with the same shine of good humor that they saw in Durapar's gaze.

"I am thrilled to meet you all. My shop is yours."

"We just need the big tasting room," Durapar explained. "And something to eat. And some privacy to talk a little, if you can manage it."

Mertril looked interested, but also obviously did not intend to ask what was going on. "That's fine. The big tasting room is not in use. Just call Zistha to take your orders when you're ready."

Durapar looked grateful. "Thank you, Mert. I'll fill you in later."

The older Andaleesian sighed. "Just remember to activate the anti-snoop field once you're inside, if you're really serious about your privacy."

"I'll do that." Durapar turned to Charlie. "If you and the others would accompany me, please?"

They formed a group behind Durapar, and then followed him into a hallway at the back of the shop, which had numerous large doorways along either side of it. Most were open, revealing fine alien ideas on dining rooms in general, perhaps mixed with a bit of kitchen here and there; but several of the doorways were filled with darkness, signaling the presence of some sort of privacy field in place. Durapar ignored them all, and marched directly down the hallway to the largest doorway of them all, spanning the very end of the hallway, and led them inside a large dining room with several styles of tables in place. He chose the largest table, which could easily accommodate them all, and turned and waved a hand at it, the excitement still present in his eyes.

"If everyone will find a place. The seating will adjust to your physical characteristics, so just sit and you'll be fine."

Durapar flopped onto one of the round but featureless seats, and it immediately flowed around him, providing a back and armrests at just the right height. It also raised slowly until he was at the right height before the table for eating. Charlie grinned, and he and Kip found seats next to each other and sat down, too. There was a fluttery feeling at his back, and in a brief moment he was comfortably presented before the table at just the right height and distance.

Presently, everyone was seated, and Durapar tapped the tabletop in front of him. "Services."

The tabletop directly before him bulged upwards, presenting a sleek face covered with the winking dots of tiny instruments. "Privacy, please."

Charlie caught a flicker of motion out of the side of his eye, and turned to find the doorway they had entered through now covered with one of the black fields.

Kippy gave a little harumph, and turned immediately to Durapar. "You really need to lock the door?"

The alien laughed. "It's a normal business precaution here. The doorway is not actually closed. If you get up and walk through it, the field will easily pass you back to the hallway."

"Oh, just eye-proof, huh?" Ricky said, grinning. "Cool."

"And soundproof," Durapar added. "And immune to electromagnetic probing. And not just the doorway, but the entire room, is secured from eavesdropping of any kind."

Charlie exchanged glances with Kippy. "Is that really needed?" Charlie asked. "I mean...this is Engris."

Durapar's eyes smiled at them. "You haven't been here that long, have you?"

"A few years, on and off."

"Ah. I have owned my shop here for quite some time, and have been studying Engris even longer. I have come to understand that there is a certain fluidness to the rules here."

"I have noticed a bit of that myself," Ragal put in. "Engris is mostly concerned with allowing no harm to others or the property of others, and with the physical safety and jurisdictional freedom of the planet itself."

"Exactly." Durapar nodded, and Charlie smiled as the little alien's ears waved at him. "Engris disallows violence of any sort, and will eject those that intend harm to others. Nor can you purposely steal so much as a single florba fruit from one of the stands without gaining this world's attention. But intent is all important here. Accidental acts that harm others will be brought to the attention of the perpetrator, but will not result in automatic expulsion. Repeat acts of the same offense might, however, with Engris apparently reasoning that second offenses of the same type present a willful disregard for the safety of others and/or a failure to learn from experience."

"So why do you have to raise a privacy field?" Charlie asked. "Anyone trying to listen in or observe us would be harming us, wouldn't they? Engris would stop them?"

"Not...necessarily." Durapar shook his head. "Here is where the fluid part of the rules comes in. Engris seems to understand the concept of competition. Curiosity without intent to harm is apparently not considered a reason for Engris to act. Some people are just plain nosy, but have no intention to harm anyone. The city is rife with spyware of all kinds. Apparently, Engris considers some forms of this nosiness as normal and non-harmful, even when the information gained is sometimes used to the advantage of someone in business. If you spied on someone, and planned to use that knowledge to be somewhere at a certain time to kill them, Engris would come and get you quickly. But if you, uh, overhear something, and use the knowledge to gain an advantage in business, Engris looks the other way as long as no physical harm comes to the one affected."

Charlie laughed in amazement at that. "You mean we've been spied upon for years, and didn't even know it?"

"Not us," Max said immediately, shaking his head. "I know how to flummox that sort of stuff."

"But you're not always here with us," Kippy pointed out.

"Don't matter. I put the hoodoo on all that stuff for all you guys. Lollipop can take care of itself, but I got the villa covered, and all of you personally. And Pacha did it before me. No one is spying on you, believe me."

"Well, that's good to know," Ricky said. "Some of the stuff we talk about here is nobody's business but ours."

Max nodded. "So even if Durapar didn't have his doodad turned on right now, no one could monitor what's going on here."

The Andaleesian brought his small hands together in a giant clap. "Wonderful! You continue to amaze me with your versatility!"

"Oh, uh, I try," Max said, a little drily. "This is just commonsense stuff, you know?"

Charlie considered what he had just learned, and sighed to himself. Engris was such an enigma, and seemed to be understood so differently depending on who you talked to. Charlie had never considered the possibility of being spied on here. But such things were apparently so commonplace in galactic culture that Pacha'ka had dealt with them automatically, and Max had simply detected them and cut them off with the same sort of casual practicality.

"Well, uh, thanks, Max."

"Sure thing. Now let's get on with this, huh? Especially the food part!"

Durapar chuckled, and patted the tabletop. "Send Zistha, please."

Kippy tapped the tabletop lightly with his fingers to regain Durapar's attention. "You seem to know more about the way Engris thinks than we do. So don't you think Engris would understand you meant no harm by digging into the surface to find this room of yours?"

Durapar made a small sound that definitely conveyed a sense of frustration. "I believe as you, that Engris will view any attempt by us to assist this world as exactly that. But I am responsible to the others of my kind who live or work or trade here. Not all of them think as I do."

"They're afraid of the possibilities," Ragal said, nodding his head.

"Exactly. The very mystery that Engris represents inspires uncertainty, and uncertainty inspires fear. Or, at least, an unwillingness to push the bounds of safe conduct. I understand how some of my people feel, and do not hold it against them."

This was not the first time Charlie had encountered this sort of adherence to the rules among some of the people here. While most of those that came to Engris to do business were only responsible to themselves, some of the people that had taken up residence on Engris, like the Molokar, and now the Andaleesians, lived under a more formal set of rules that governed the conduct of the group. Durapar was not some loner here on Engris just to make a profit. He was a member of a resident community, and therefore bound by its rules.

Charlie eyed the alien speculatively. "So what will your people think about this latest attempt to gain access to the interior of Engris?"

Durapar smiled. "Why, nothing. I don't plan to tell them."

For a moment the table was silent, and then Kippy laughed. "Oh, that's good. And I was worried!"

The Andaleesian shook his head. "I am a law-abiding citizen. Any attempt by known means to explore the interior of Engris must have the approval of the majority of my people here. The law specifically addresses excavation, sensor probing, and mechanical intrusion into the interior. I have no plans to gain entry by any of those means, which have already been denied. But I am not required to have approval to attempt exploration by means unknown to the law."

"It wouldn't be considered implicit?" Charlie asked.

"No, not at all. The law addresses specific instances. It does not cover investigation of Engris by way of the abilities of non-Andaleesian citizens."

A soft chime rang in the room then, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Durapar raised a hand towards the cloaked doorway. "Come."

The darkness within the doorway bulged inward, and then parted around one of the artificial Andaleesian lifeforms from the front of the shop. "Hello, Zistha!" Durapar called.

Charlie had not noticed that the AI's feet did not touch the floor back in the shop. It glided across the room to them, and pulled up near the head of the table. "Greetings, Durapar and company. I am to take your orders." The AI's eyes moved among them, and then came back to Durapar. "I'm sorry, but I am unable to scan anyone but you and Sefton. I will need nourishment profiles from the rest of you."

Charlie looked over at Max, who smiled and winked at him. Whatever the elf did to keep them from being scanned, it obviously worked!

"Three-A for all us humans," Kippy said, waving a hand among them. They had learned which local profile covered foods that were safe for them to eat.

"I am Three-B," Ragal said next.

"Me, too," Casper said. All profiles with the same number header were basically the same, with the lettered sub-categories excluding some foods from the previous group. But in practice both Ragal and Casper had been able to eat anything that the boys did; the exclusions were precautionary only.

"Very well. Menus will appear before you."

And they did. Right out of thin air, placed before them from hidden projectors somewhere within the room. By now everyone knew what dishes here on Engris were tasty and which were more daring, and so Charlie was surprised to see a number of selections on the menu with which he was unfamiliar. But the menu was cross-referenced, with an 'if you liked selection A, you will most likely enjoy selection D, F, J, K and Q' type of listing. Charlie picked a few items he knew he liked, and then decided to try one more unfamiliar dish from the cross-referenced listing. Couldn't hurt to branch out a little!

Kippy glanced up at Zistha. "Can I get my katang lightly done? I don't like it as crispy as most people."

"Yes. Any conditions that stray from normal preparations should be indicated at the time of ordering."

Presently they had all ordered, and the conversation moved away from their plans with Engris and into more mundane things as they waited for the food to arrive. Kippy talked with Adrian, seated next to him, and with Ricky in the next seat further on, but gently squeezed Charlie's hand under the table the entire time. Charlie smiled at that, while also watching Ragal talk to Casper about something they had done together before the humans had arrived, while a smiling Horace, seated beside Ragal, sat with his chin propped up on one hand and his eyes large, and followed every word attentively. Max and Durapar had put their heads together and were talking quietly about something, while Sefton sat back with his eyes closed and an uncannily pleased smile on his face. The contentment the Molokar was feeling seemed to radiate outward from his body.

For the briefest of moments, Charlie was on his own in his thoughts. The feeling of relaxation he got from this small, private moment was enormous. Here were his friends, people he trusted and loved, ready to again set out on a mission that was yet to be fully defined. That these sorts of things were common and readily accepted by them all now was amazing. Briefly, Charlie wondered what his mom and dad were doing back home, and thought how astonished they would be if they had any idea of where he was now and what he was doing.

We've come so far, he thought, amidst a brief wave of genuine wonder. And so fast!

The food began to arrive then, and Kippy returned his attention to Charlie, and inspected what he had ordered, and they each sampled some of the other's plate. The conversation shifted to the matter at hand, and they all discussed what their next steps should be. By the time the food was gone and their bellies full, they had laid out a plan for the next morning, to hopefully begin their exploration of the interior of Engris.

And to find the special place that Durapar had envisioned, where, hopefully, the answers to some age-old questions might finally be obtained.

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