Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

The transport pulled into a large chamber, sailed across a startlingly vast open area, and settled to a stop in a cradle that appeared to be floating in the exact center. Charlie and the others stared in wonder through the transparent nose of the little car, taking in the immense place with just a bit of unavoidable awe.

"Um, that's huge," Adrian said quietly, his eyes trying to go everywhere at once.

"Ginormous," Ricky added, nodding. He grinned at Charlie. "Looks like the inside of one of those old sea mines they used to drag out of the ocean every now and then. The round ones, with all the spikes on them?"

Charlie nodded. The vast chamber looked to be the inside of an enormous globe, with the dark openings of tunnels spaced regularly about its entire inner surface. Charlie looked directly above them, and could see the beginnings of the tunnels fading into the distance inside their round openings. It was the same in every direction. The tunnels below them looked like gaping holes into the depths of the planet. The scale was intimidating, but the reality rather exciting. There must be tunnels here to every part of Lyrgris!

He frowned then. "We seem to have stopped. Eseffa said we would keep going until we reached the control center."

"Maybe we need to be switched into the right tunnel," Kippy suggested. "Maybe that takes a minute or two."

Max got up from his seat and moved to stand beside Charlie. "Something ain't right. I feel it."

Ragal appeared, and pointed at the distant inner surface of the chamber ahead of them. "There."

Even as they looked, the surface bubbled upwards, and then the sides of the bubble retreated back down, leaving a hole. A bit of mist appeared out of the hole, quickly formed into a Madracorn, and then the alien was sailing across the interval towards them.

"The door," Kippy said quickly, jumping to his feet.

They moved toward the port through which they had entered the transport, and it opened just as Eseffa reached them.

"You are in danger," the man said immediately. "The Moth have redirected one of their boring machines to this point. Its intersection lies close enough to the tunnel you must take to get to the control center that internal safety protocols have come into play. The service mind will not allow you to proceed until the danger is passed."

"Can you override that?" Max asked quickly.

"I cannot. The danger to your safety is real. At the speeds these transports travel, any threat to the integrity of the tunnels they utilize will cause a shutdown of that part of the system." Eseffa turned, and pointed to the distant wall of the chamber. "The boring machine will be here momentarily."

"Can you come inside?" Max asked.


Max stepped back, gently pushing the others with his spread arms. "Come in so we can close the door."

Eseffa entered, and the port closed behind them. Max turned and hustled back to the front of the craft, and Charlie and the others followed.

"What are we going to do?" Charlie asked.

But Max turned to Eseffa. "Will they be able to see us inside, through this transparent nose?"

"No. It is only transparent from the inside."

"Good. I'd just as soon they not get a good look at us." Max looked at Charlie then. "We have to wait and see what shows up before I can tell you what we're going to do."

"That seems imminent," Ragal inserted, pointing to the section of inner wall that Eseffa had indicated earlier. "It comes now."

They all turned, staring, and at first Charlie didn't see anything. But then a glow appeared on the wall between two of the tunnels, quickly became red hot, and then white hot. And then a large round section of the wall puffed away in a cloud of tumultuous vapor, leaving a glowing hole in its wake. From where they were, the hole looked as large as the transport tunnels on either side of it. That figured, as surely the Moth would be drilling tunnels large enough to take back the spoils they coveted.

For a moment nothing happened. But as the rose-colored glow within the tunnel began to subside, first one, and then several, things appeared, and quickly became the ends of long metallic tentacles, which fastened to the rim of the hole and contracted, drawing the snout of a machine forward into view. That snout was rounded, and covered with unfamiliar gear of some sort, which, even as they watched, seemed to melt back inside the machine, leaving several round globes on the ends of stiff rods in their place. These immediately thrust forward and began to move about in all directions.

"Having a look around," Ragal said quietly. "Reconnaissance."

"They can't detect us," Max offered, watching the distant machine. "But they will see the transport sitting here."

"It's curious," Casper said then, watching the distant machine. "And smart. It knows it's looking for people."

Charlie felt a momentary shock at hearing that, but then realized the truth of it. Smart machines were a fact of daily life out in the empires. "I wonder if it can leave that hole?"

"I would say it can," Ragal decided. "And that it will, at some point. This transport will certainly be an object of interest, as it seems to be the only one present.

Charlie looked around, and realized that Ragal was right. In all this open space, theirs was the only transport in view.

He turned to Eseffa. "I don't suppose the hull of this thing would keep it from getting at us?"

"It probably will not, though this hull cannot be breached easily."

Max gave a grim laugh at that. "I don't intend to let things get that far. Let's just see what happens."

Durapar managed to push himself between Charlie and Kip then, looked up at them apologetically, and then turned his eyes to the distant borer visible through the transparent hull. "I had to see."

Charlie smiled, and patted the Andaleesian on one skinny shoulder. "I hope it was worth the trip."

"So far, it has been." He turned his gaze on Max, and then Eseffa. "What can we do?"

"I'm afraid I cannot do anything," Eseffa said. "If the defensive key were in place, I could remove this machine completely. But as it stands now, I am sorry to say I am helpless."

"Well, I ain't helpless," Max said. "They wanna fight, I can give 'em one."

Kippy laughed then, a release of tension, surely; but it made everyone smile, and Charlie let out the breath he had been holding. "Can we help you in any way?"

Max shrugged. "Won't know until I know. Let's just wait and--"

"It's moving!" Casper yelled then, pointing.

The distant machine launched itself out of the hole, coming directly towards them. Charlie had the impression of a long body, brownish in color, with appendages of some sort growing from the bottoms of the sides even as he watched. It looked like a giant cockroach scuttling towards them.

Kippy grabbed Charlie's hand and gripped it tightly, and Charlie drew his boyfriend closer. "It's okay."

"I know."

Max raised his hands then, and the borer stopped dead in midair, halfway to them. "Ugly thing." One eyebrow raised slightly. "Strong, too."

More appendages extruded from the top of the machine, and waved about, as if seeking whatever impediment was holding it back. The two globes in the front moved about on the ends of the rods, and Charlie had the distinct impression the machine was looking at them. The front of the borer changed then, right before their eyes, as the original strange gear they had first seen reappeared on the rounded nose, simply rising from the flat surface as if pushed out from within.

A bright, circular light suddenly dazzled them, and the transport jumped in its cradle, throwing them to the deck.

All except Max. He rebounded with the rest of them, but did not fall, held upright by some invisible force. He cursed, something Charlie almost never heard the elf do, and then Max had his hands out again, pointing at the distant borer. The transport jumped and rocked again, and Kippy grabbed at Charlie and held on tightly.

Max flickered, was gone a moment...and then returned in the same spot. The transport suddenly went still.

Charlie got to his feet with the others, and peered out the front of the transport. The borer was gone.

"Well done!" Eseffa said, sounding relieved. "A marvelous effort!"

Charlie stared a moment longer, and then laughed. "You teleported it."

"Yep. It's happily orbiting Lyrgris even as we speak."

Kippy reached out and patted Max fondly. "I saw you disappear for a split second. Where'd you go?"

Max smiled and raised his hands like he was holding the reins of some wild stallion, and then bucked a few times, swinging his hips in a smooth curve back and forth, as if he was riding. Kippy's eyebrows immediately went up, and he sagged against Charlie and sighed. "Oh, my!"

Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Max's face colored slightly. "Aw, Geez! I was making like I was riding a horse, Kip."

"And doing very well with it, too!"

Max rolled his eyes. "I teleported out to the borer, landed on its back, and teleported it out into space along the route we came to get here. Then I came right back. Only took a second or so!"

"Can it return?" Horace asked, giving his head a small shake. "If it can fly, it might return."

"It probably can. But it will take it a while, and we sure won't be here when it gets back."

Charlie turned to Eseffa, who had been watching them in silence. "What do we do now?"

The Madracorn looked apologetic. "I'm afraid I don't know. This transport is damaged, and it would be unsafe for it to proceed in the tunnel you need to take, and the safety protocols will not allow it, anyway."

"What about another transport?" Max asked.

"I can get one here fairly quickly, but it still would not be allowed to enter the tunnel to the control center. The tunnel bored by the Moth machine is too close to our own tunnel. There would be the possibility of a tunnel blow out at speed, which would be catastrophic for the transport car. And anyone inside it. Safety protocols will not allow for this to happen."

"You can't fix it?" Kippy asked.

"If Lyrgris were fully operational, yes. As things are now, I cannot."

"I guess we have to walk," Casper said, grinning. "We'll just get in that tunnel and start hiking!"

Kippy and Adrian both laughed. "I'm up for it," Adrian said.

Eseffa looked startled. "I don't think that would work. The control center is some three hundred miles through the crust of the planet from this location. Time would not allow it."

Ragal looked interested. "That would be about a fifteen-minute run in this transport. I don't even wish to think about the time it would take to walk it." He leaned forward. "The transport can't be used. But surely your people must have had some sort of slower autonomous craft here, maybe used for inspection or repair?"

Eseffa considered that, and then gave a slight bow of his head. "Of course! There are small craft used here within the switching center for local movement. I can get one of those. It operates outside the tunnel transport system network and will not be halted by the safety block." The Madracorn frowned then. "However, it is a much slower craft, and would take much longer to reach the control center."

Max gave a sigh. "How much longer?"

"Three hours, relative? Give or take a few minutes."

Charlie had been expecting something much slower. "That's not so bad."

Max turned to smile at him. "That's a lot of time for the Moth to take action against us."

Charlie shrugged. "We have to do this. We're just wasting time talking about it."

The elf nodded.

"How exciting!" Durapar said, clutching his hands before him. "I had no idea this trip would be so exhilarating!"

Sefton gave a mighty grunt at that. "Has been more fun than driving sightseers to domes, must admit."

Horace smiled at Charlie. "Beats investigating haunted houses for clues of paranormal activity." He winked. "So far."

Charlie looked at his boyfriend, who simply smiled encouragingly.

Charlie tugged at his ear, feeling a little amazed, but smiled. "We're all getting a little nuts, I think. But that never stopped us before!"

Ricky briefly pounded his chest and grinned. "Yeah! That's the kind of talk I like!"

Adrian circled an arm around his boyfriend and grinned at Kip, as if to say, that's my big he-man!

Kippy laughed. "Rick's ready to carry us all there, if he has to."

Ricky looked briefly embarrassed. "Well, I'm just saying! Let's get moving!"

Casper laughed, and tugged at Charlie's arm. "Yeah, Charlie. You're holding up the party!"

Charlie shook his head in wonder, but turned to Eseffa then. "Okay. How do we get this inspection craft, or whatever it is?"

The Madracorn looked delighted, and waved a hand at the transport's port. "If you'll open the door, I'll take you there."

Kil'brith and Onath sat back from the center console, both looking astonished. The implications of what they were seeing were clear. In the inset providing a view of what borer number 18 was seeing, the darkness of the negative zone was apparent, while the nearly invisible orb of the planet circled below. Mor'ath stared at them across the display, his own face looking haunted. "The borer is now in orbit above us."

The transition had been instantaneous. One moment the borer was launching itself towards a cradle holding what appeared to be a tunnel transport car; the next it was floating in space far above the planet.

"They teleported it," Kil'brith said slowly. "Power-users!"

"No one can teleport so much mass, so far!" Onath complained.

Kil'brith shook his head. "The evidence of our eyes is clear. Someone can!"

Mor'ath grunted, and quickly examined his instruments. "It could have been a machine of some sort. Translocation has long been considered possible by technical means, and I've heard rumors that our very own labs have been working on such devices for years."

"It's not a rumor," Onath revealed. "I have read reports on such experiments, myself. But as practical machines, they are still many years away from production." He turned to Kil'brith. "Yet I would be much more comfortable with the idea that these ancient people had such devices, than I would with believing we face power users so much more capable than ourselves."

Kil'brith briefly closed his eyes, then reopened them. "I sense these are actual beings we face. But it could be a combination of the two, a living adversary utilizing technical abilities beyond our own." He tapped his fingers restlessly against the armrests of his seat. "Onath, how long before the transport carrying your security detail reaches that large chamber?"

Onath checked the console before him. "Another ten minutes, at least."

"Make them aware of what happened to the borer. fact...Mor'ath, switch them into our current display."

"Done." The systems engineer peered at his console again. "Wait...I am detecting a small craft of some kind departing the large switching chamber. It is entering one of the tunnels now. Once again there seems to be no one aboard." His fingers moved quickly above the console, and then he looked up at them. "This tunnel leads to one of the machine spaces we targeted earlier."

"Something is happening," Kil'brith decided. "Something that will affect us. I don't like it."

"What can we do now?" Onath said. For the first time he was feeling the sense of helplessness that came with running an operation from the ship. Not being on the spot of the action was so limiting!

But the ship commander seemed not hear him. "Mor'ath, do we have a borer on the way to the machine space where this new craft is heading?"

"Uh...well, commander, they are heading to the chamber that borer number 18 was drilling to. That borer now circles the planet above us. I have sent a replacement borer to complete the task, but it is still on its way through the original bore and will be some time reaching the point where the first borer left off."

Kil'brith sat back in his seat. "Onath, send a second squad of your people after this new borer. I want to have personnel on hand when it finally reaches the destination chamber." He checked his console again, and nodded. "When your first security detail reaches the large switching chamber, we will have them enter the tunnel the alien craft has taken, and pursue them from behind. With any luck both squads will converge on this new machine space at roughly the same time, and we will catch our adversaries between!"

Onath nodded. "And what then?"

Kil'brith raised his hands and gently tapped his fingertips together. "I suggest you order your people to hold their fire unless fired upon. I have no desire to initiate a war with those that built this place. You understand?"

"Yes. I think it's an advisable course of action. I'll contact my people right now."

"This thing moves pretty good," Ricky said for the third time, causing Charlie to smile. Rick's fascination with things mechanical was almost legendary now.

The car they rode in now was open, with sides that came up to a reassuring height, but with no top whatsoever. There was a windscreen up front, transparent, that seemed to direct the flow of air above their heads. There were enough seats for all, and still empty space left over at the rear for cargo, had they had any. The walls of the tunnel passed by in a blur, barely visible outside the glow of the amazing headlamp the car possessed. The tunnel was lit for what looked like a mile ahead of them, and the wash of the light reached back along the walls of the tunnel to almost the rear of the car. But behind them was an utter blackness deeper than any Charlie could remember seeing in a long time.

"We're only going about a hundred miles an hour," he said, in answer. "At least according to the figures that Eseffa gave us."

Ricky looked delighted,"Yeah, but that's fast for something open." He laughed. "I always wanted a convertible!"

"It is one-twelfth the speed we could have made in the original transport," Ragal pointed out. "The Moth have slowed us down by that factor. What should have been a fifteen-minute journey will now take three hours to complete."

"And they're after us, too," Casper added. "I can feel it."

Ragal nodded. "I can, too."

"Makes three of us," Max agreed.

"Four," Kippy added, from beside Charlie.

"Anyone care for 'five'?" Adrian put in. "Not just after us, but trying to cut us off, somehow."

"You people are wonderfully sensitive!" Durapar said, looking from face to face. "I just sense a general feeling of doom, myself."

Max grinned at that. "Aw, geez, we ain't there yet. We still have some tricks up our sleeves."

"I do sense them moving along two courses that will ultimately meet somewhere ahead of us," Ragal stated.

Max nodded. "They're behind us, in this tunnel, and I think they're in the bore tunnel leading to the control place where we're going. Feels to me like they'll get there right after we will."

Durapar's eyes widened. "And you're not worried?"

Max's grin widened. "Who said that? Sure, I'm concerned. But we have a good group here. We'll be okay."

"Not have active powers like you," Sefton said, his face contorting into one of the grimace-smiles that was peculiar to his kind. He flexed his big hands, and held them out. "Can break things very well, though."

That garnered a much needed laugh from everyone.

Casper patted the box he held on his lap, that contained the tiny defensive mind they needed to put into place. "This one has become aware. I feel it knows it is off to do battle, somehow."

Ricky grinned at that. "I'd be anxious for a scrap if I'd been sitting on a shelf for a half-million years, too!"

Max held up a hand for attention. "Casper, can you talk to that thing?'

Casper closed his eyes, and his face relaxed. "Not...really. It knows we are here, and it knows what we hope to do with it. It cannot act without a command from Eseffa or Jorli, though. I hope Eseffa meets us at the control center, like he said he would."

"He will," Max reassured. "He and Jorli are limited in how far they can travel from those holes they come out of as mist. But he said they can send a shaft to any place on the planet except the surface, and that he would be there, waiting on us."

"We need to build them one of those robot things like Billy and Will used to go with us when we first visited the Moth," Adrian said. "That way, Eseffa and Jorli could get around better."

"It's an idea," Max offered. "But it was Billy and Will that mostly knew how to build that thing. Pacha and I just supplied the constructive energy. I doubt we could replicate that Gort thing they had us build without their help again."

"So we'll get it," Kippy said. "That shouldn't be hard."

"Remind me when we're not being chased by the Moth," Max answered, his eyes twinkling.

Charlie held up his arm, and angled it so that the light struck the face of his watch. "Still more than an hour to go before we get there." He sensed something strange then, and turned his head to look behind them. And was startled to think he could see a light. "Look!"

Everyone else turned, too. Far to their rear, a tiny pinpoint of light shone in the darkness.

"They're catching up to us!" Kippy said, sounding alarmed.

Casper looked over at Horace, and smiled. "Maybe it's time to use some of the stuff we cooked up?"

Horace turned to look back at the distant light. "They're very far away. Can you reach that far?"

"I've learned a lot from Ragal. From everybody. I'm sure I can reach them, even now. Even farther, if I have to."

Max went to sit beside Horace. "Need any help?"

"Maybe." Casper grinned at Kippy, and then Adrian. "You guys could help with some power, I think."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, and then released it. He stood at the same time as Adrian, and both boys circled around to take seats behind Casper, where they could touch his shoulders.

"What are we gonna do?" Max asked. The sense of anticipation in his voice made Charlie smile. There were many times that Charlie saw Max as just another big kid. If it involved magic of any kind, Max was always interested.

Casper chuckled in a squeaky fashion, widening Charlie's smile.

"Well, the Moth are expecting to meet the builders of Engris now. I suggest we let them meet one!"

Misola strained his eyes, trying to see through the wash of light ahead of their transport. "I don't see anything."

Beside him, Tif'tok grunted. "Sensors say they're there, about ten miles ahead of us. This tunnel is utterly straight. The walls are non-reflective. We have a clear mark on some sort of transport ahead of us."

For a moment Misola cursed his own seniority. Being shifted from the relative safety of guard duty in the big dome to actively chasing ghosts of some kind did not sit well with him. So far, no one had detected any sort of living beings in any of what had happened thus far. Just machines moving about. It was his opinion that they were chasing automated equipment just going about some sort of routine, perhaps initiated by their own boring into this accursed planet's hide.

But there were higher ups present, if only by way of a common link. They could see and hear everything that was happening within and around the transport. Briefly, Misola turned to glance at the dozen armored soldiers in their slanted racks to their rear, who could also see and hear everything happening. They, too, would be considering what sort of rewards might come from this action, and what sort of punishments might come if they messed it up. Misola and Tif'tok, as the two senior men, bore the responsibility one way or the other, unless Onath himself gave the orders that resulted in success or failure. But so far, their distant commander had chosen to remain mostly silent, waiting to see what happened. Misola felt like the sacrificial stiltz, about to be led off to the slaughter.

He turned back to face forward, and checked the display again. "We're catching up to them?"

Tif'tok grunted. "They aren't going very fast. At our present rate, we'll be directly behind them in about three minutes."

Misola listened for a moment, but nothing came from Onath. "Slow us down some. I don't want to reach them that quickly."

Still nothing from the distant commander.

The transport slowed noticeably. "It will take us about twenty minutes to catch them at this speed. You have reason for delaying contact?"

Misola made a patient sound. "We can't do much but follow them until they reach their destination chamber. Pressing them beforehand might make them act. I have no desire to suddenly find our transport in orbit around this world."

Tif'tok made to answer, when his console beeped and a light appeared on the scanning array. Tif'tok looked over at Misola, alarm apparent in his expression. "Something has appeared in the tunnel between us and them!"

"Bring us to a stop!" Misola responded. "What are you detecting?"

The transport decelerated suddenly, and the walls of the tunnel ceased to be a blur and became visible ahead of them. The transport drew to a stop.

"I...don't know what it is," Tif'tok said then. "It's large, though. It reads could be a life form. But if it is, it's a very odd one!"

Misola was stunned at the idea. "One of them jumped out of the car ahead? That's impossible!"

Onath's voice spoke up in the car with them then. "We may be dealing with power users of superior ability."

They had been informed that power users might be involved in these recent events, but no one had mentioned anything about someone that could leap out of a transport moving at this sort of speed and come to a stop without harm. That sort of personal control of inertia and force was beyond anything that Misola had ever heard about. Superior ability, indeed!

"It's about a mile ahead of us," Tif'tok announced. "What do you want to do?"

But it was Onath that answered. "Move up to it slowly. Let's get a look at it."

Tif'tok looked over at Misola, but nudged the transport into motion. "Proceeding, commander."

The mile passed quickly enough, and soon something appeared before them. Tif'tok slowed the transport, and stopped it when the object ahead was clear in the beam of light that lit the way ahead.

Misola stared. The alien - and it was an alien - was a giant. It stood almost as tall as the tunnel, on two thick legs, it's two arms akimbo as its hands rested upon its hips. The creature wore what looked like armor, though of a type that would be deemed ceremonial on any Moth world, just steel formed to fit over the arms, torso, and legs, but without apparent energy defenses or dampers. A massive, ornate helmet rested atop the creature's head, with what looked like horns sticking out the sides of it. Two burning, coal-like eyes observed them from beneath a fearsome brow, and the snout of the creature was wrinkled and dark and well endowed with teeth.

Misola couldn't take his eyes off the being, every childhood story of ancient gods and demons he had ever heard suddenly upon him. There were several sounds of amazement from the troops behind them, and even Tif'tok pushed himself back into the arms of his rack seat. Misola would have been amazed to have thought of himself as superstitious before this. The Moth were creatures of science and technology, and no one believed in the things now that the ancients had. The stories that had survived from those times, and the ancient fears they had once engendered, were matters of history now, and nothing else.

Then why did this alien strike fear into his heart?

"Are you seeing this, Control?" he asked the com.

"Yes," Kil'brith returned. "Still to be determined what we are seeing."

"Switching to exterior sound," Onath announced then. His next words were addressed to the alien before them. "I am commander Onath, of the Moth occupation force. Identify yourself."

Misola winced at the lack of a civil greeting, feeling it was a mistake in this instance, and wondering if the alien before them even had translation abilities.

But apparently, it did. "Intruders," the alien said, in a voice of both great size and somewhat combustible timbre. The tunnel seemed to amplify the sound, and it reverberated throughout the transport, the voice of a god of old. "This is our world. By what right do you invade our places and steal the things that belong to us?"

Misola felt an unaccustomed alarm at the words. There was nothing like being caught in the act!

"This world was empty when we found it," Onath replied, his words sounding more careful now. "We are simply exploring the place. Our intent is salvage, no more."

"This world was slumbering," the alien countered. "You have awakened it. You will bear the consequences for this act."

Tif'tok looked over at Misola. This wasn't going well! his expression seemed to say.

But Onath seemed unimpressed. "You plan to stop us? You don't look capable of it."

"We will stop you. I...and others."

Kil'brith's voice suddenly replaced Onath's. "At the time we arrived here, no life was detected. We did not mean to intrude on an occupied world. Yet we require proof that you actually own this place before we can accept that it belongs to you. You took your time appearing after our arrival. My suspicion is that you arrived after us, and this is some game to contest our legal right to salvage."

"We don't recognize your type of life," Onath added. "Where do you come from?"

One large hand waved at them. "My kind roved the stars when yours were still pulling themselves from the muck of your dirty little homeworld! You dare to question me?"

The hand moved as if to thrust them away, and the entire transport suddenly shuddered, and moved...backwards!

"Hold in place!" Onath yelled over the com. Tif'tok's fingers shot out at the controls, and for a moment the transport steadied.

Misola's eyes went back to the being in the tunnel before them just in time to see it leap forward at them. The transport shuddered to a heavy impact, and then began to jerk side to side, striking the walls of the tunnel!

An override icon appeared in the display before them, and the transport hummed as forward thrust was applied. Onath had taken control from the ship!

The transport groaned and continued to buck side to side, but not to gain an inch forward. They could hear an ominous pounding on the hull of the transport, and a warning buzzer went off as overstress indicators popped up in the display.

"He's going to crush us!" Tif'tok yelled.

They heard Onath yelling something, but the sound of the transport beating against the tunnel walls was now too loud to hear anything else.

The transport trembled then as the forward offensive array bellowed out a pulse of high energy plasma. Onath had opened fire!

But the energy pulse seemed to pass directly through the creature in the tunnel before them. The shaking of the transport intensified, and then suddenly ceased as the giant in the tunnel backed away from them. One huge hand raised and a thick finger pointed at them. The coal-fire eyes burned at them in anger from beneath the helmet's brim, and the voice, when it came, was of terrible volume. "This is not over! This has just begun! Beware!"

And then the alien simply vanished. The transport surged forward, and then slowed as Onath brought it back under control.

Alarmed voices came from the troops behind Misola now, and he immediately turned and made a vicious stab at them with a finger. "Hold back there! Order!"

The voices died away. But the eyes of the troopers said it all. They had been unnerved by what had just happened. And Misola didn't blame them one bit!

"I'm amazed that a bodiless life form like that could hold back the transport," Kil'brith's voice said over the com. "That being was a power user of some sort!"

It took a moment for the commander's words to sink in. "Bodiless?" Misola repeated. "But it had a body. An enormous one!"

The com was silent for a moment. Then Kil'brith spoke again. "Tell me what you saw."

Misola described the giant alien, and Tif'tok corroborated his words. So did several of the troopers in the squad behind them.

"There was no giant alien," Onath finally said. "Only a misty, indistinct presence, that flowed about with an apparent life. We could hear its voice, the same as you. But we did not see what you saw."

Misola and Tif'tok stared at each other in disbelief. Only a mist!

"It was fearsome," Misola said in a subdued voice. "Like one of the demons from legend. There was no mistake about it."

"I believe you," Kil'brith said, his voice sounding reassuring over the com now. "Maintain your position for the moment while we review the record of this encounter. Don't move that transport, understand?"

"Yes, commander. We will wait."

Misola turned his eyes to Tif'tok, who now wore the same haunted expression on his face.

What had they just encountered? A living, breathing life form, or...the ghost of one?

"This is alarming," Kil'brith said, his voice conveying in no uncertain terms how he felt. "I believe we are up against power users of incredible skill." He shook his head at Onath. "We will need to consider the possibility of a withdrawal from this world."

Onath stared at him. "Isn't that a bit hasty? Think of what we would be throwing away! This world possesses the very same technology that shields Engris. Once mastered, Engris could be ours!"

Mor'ath had witnessed the entire encounter with the transport, and now dared to offer his opinion. "If I may, Commander."

"Yes. Speak your mind, Mor'ath."

The other man gave a small shake of his head. "What the security squad on the transport saw and what our instruments transmitted to us were not the same thing. I suggest that what we saw was a true account of what happened."

"Then why did the security squad see something else?"

"Because they were made to, Commander. I believe we are up against power users that can manipulate great forces. Far greater than anything even our own strongest power users could accomplish. I also believe that the enemy possesses a power that has been proposed, but never yet encountered: the power of illusion."

Onath made a rude noise. "The readings from those stress indicators on the transport were no illusion. Great force was expended against that vehicle. Almost enough to damage it, if not destroy it!"

"Yes." Mor'ath made a sign of agreement. "This sort of application of force is a known talent among our own kind, though nowhere near this level. But it does not account for the troops there seeing one thing, while we saw another. Only one possibility can explain that, at least to me."

Onath looked like he was not about to be convinced. "And that would be?"

"Range. Distance. We did not see what the troopers saw, because we were too far away. Beyond the range of the illusionist to reach us."

"That makes sense," Kil'brith said. "I, too, have read speculations on the possibilities of power usage among as yet unencountered species. The ability to create illusion in the minds of others has been widely theorized." He leaned towards Mor'ath then. "But no known race has this ability."

Mor'ath held up a hand. "That would seem to verify that we are up against a new, as yet unmet foe."

Onath's eyes moved back and forth between the two Moth, and then he settled back in his rack seat. "I can't come up with a better explanation at this time. But I do have trouble believing that there can be any power users out there that are so much more proficient than our own kind."

Kil'brith drummed his fingertips against the armrest of his own seat. "We may well be facing those that created Engris. No ability on their part would be beyond my belief."

For a moment there was silence in the command center, and then Mor'ath made a small noise. "I have just had a very unsettling thought."

Kil'brith gave a nod at the other. "Please share it with us."

Mor'ath looked unhappy, as if he really didn't wish to express his opinion, but felt that he had to do it. "It has been widely assumed that those that created Engris have been extinct for some hundreds of thousands of cycles. It has been considered probable that they were power users. This...force, that the transport encountered today, claims to be one of the owners of this world. That could be true, or it could be a lie. But let's suppose it is true."

Onath's voice sounded impatient. "Let's suppose. Get on with it!"

Mor'ath was unperturbed. "Engris, and we can assume this world, too, were built as in interface with the dead. If, as this entity we encountered today insists, the original builders of this world have returned to claim it, then it would explain much. Why they can move about undetected. Why the weapons on the transport had no effect. Why the creature simply vanished after the encounter. The original owners of this world may have returned. But if so...they are quite dead."

"You suggest we fight ghosts?" Onath said, the contempt for the idea clear in his voice.

"A mere term, for something as yet unexplained," Kil'brith injected, waving a hand at Onath. "Continue, Mor'ath."

"If those that built this world are indeed dead, but can utilize this world's peculiar technologies to return and move about, and their apparently considerable powers to fight with...there may be no defeating them at all. How do you kill someone who is already dead?"

"Indeed," Kil-brith agreed, softly. He was quiet a moment, but then sat forward again. "And yet, something is off. This being could obviously manipulate matter, as the attack on the transport indicated. So why the transports? First one, and now another, moving towards that machine space that borer number 18 was making for. If these beings are truly dead, and can move about the planet at will, then what are they doing with that transport? Is it carrying something? Someone? Perhaps we are not just dealing with the dead here."

Kil'brith suddenly leaned forward and pointed at his console. "Z'tor?"

A new face appeared. "Yes, commander?"

"How many people remain on the surface?"

"The construction specialists have all been brought back aboard for the moment. Some of the science teams, too. A few science personnel remain at machine sites, where artifacts are being recovered. They are accompanied by guard personnel. And of course the two security teams dispatched into the planet's interior are still out."

Kil'brith grunted. "Notify those science people to complete what they are doing and be prepared to return to the ship. It may be best not to have anyone out for now save those two security teams engaged in pursuing the...the enemy."

"Yes, commander. What of the alien devices stored in the dome?"

Onath suddenly leaned forward. "We should at least take them! That way the mission will not be a total loss!"

Kil'brith grunted again. "Bringing those machines aboard Ehiztari gives our foes reason to come aboard to retrieve them. I will not risk the loss of my vessel for any prize, Onath."

"But they are priceless!"

"And we will not leave without them if at all possible." Kil'brith's expression grew stony. "You forget yourself, Onath. This is my ship!"

Onath struggled for a moment with his dreams, watching them slide away irretrievably, before discipline and self-preservation took over. "Yes, commander." Onath sat back into his rack. "What of my people?"

"Keep the second team following the borer. Contact Misola and get his transport moving again. They are to close to maximum detection range with the craft in their tunnel and remain there. Follow only!"

"Yes, commander. It will be done."

Kil'brith considered Onath a moment, and then relented. "Be at ease, Onath. We are not giving up yet. The game has just begun. But I do wish to be ready to depart quickly should the need arise." He leaned forward, and laid a fingertip on the icon representing the as yet unexplored machine space that everyone seemed to be making for. "Here is where our endgame will play out. Here is where we will know if we are to win...or retreat, and wait for another day."

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