Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

"That went over well," Max decided, closing his eyes a moment, and then smiling. "They've started up that car following us again, but they're staying well back."

They had found that, by touching and concentrating, they could all participate in the recent experience. It had been largely Casper's game, with Max supplying a little muscle to bounce their foe's transport around a little, but everyone had felt as if they were there in person, even Sefton.

"Amazing, to ride along with this one," the big Molokar said, patting Casper delicately. "You one scary dude."

The humans laughed at the description, and Casper grinned, happily. "A lot of it was Horace's idea. I can see into the Moth's minds, and find what scares them. But organizing it is not always easy. Horace knows a lot about ghosts, and how they scare people. I followed his leads on how to present what the Moth are afraid of."

"Just plain old experience," Horace, said, looking embarrassed. "I have a feeling most intelligent species out here know the concept of a haunting."

"That was a pretty creepy guy you came up with," Ricky offered. "Big and ugly. And loud!"

Casper nodded. "It was a combination of ancient Moth deities from their early history. Moria and A'monath, two really bad ones. By combining their features, there was enough of each to touch off a subconscious recognition in the minds of the Moth, while still being distinctive."

"They were that big?" Adrian asked. "Or, supposedly?"

"No." Casper twisted his shoulders back and forth, the closest he could come to a human shaking their head. "The Moth are also intimidated by size. It's one thing they really don't like about the Trichani, the people like Kontus. That they are so much bigger than the Moth. Of all the peoples running the five empires, the Trichani make them the most nervous."

Charlie laughed at that. "Are you saying the Moth have an inferiority complex? I'd have never guessed that!"

Casper nodded. "They're people, Charlie. They're not very likable to us, but they're actually not all bad."

Kippy clapped his hands in delight. "Wait until Kontus hears that!"

"Was big thing you created," Sefton agreed. "Don't see too many races bigger than me." He offered his grimace-smile. "Not wish to meet that one in dark alley, that's for sure."

That caused more smiles to appear, and Charlie joined along with the others.

"You guys have dark alleys out here?" Adrian asked, seeming surprised by the idea.

Sefton turned his smile on him. "Have dark alleys everywhere, I think. No can build city without at least one."

"It was an amazing experience," Durapar said, his eyes seeming filled with happiness. "I am learning so much I would never have encountered on my own."

Charlie looked at his watch then, and gave out a big sigh. "Well, maybe that will keep them away for a while. Another forty minutes, and we'll be at the control center and can install the defensive mind."

"If Eseffa is there," Kippy reminded.

"He will be," Max assured.

"But so will the Moth, most likely," Durapar added. "What will we do about them?"

Max shrugged. "So far, they are all pretty weak power users. I don't sense anyone among them that can give us a problem there. It's just all the guns they have, is what we have to worry about."

Ragal gave a nod at that. "They will arrive at the Lyrgris control center right after we do. The ones following us, and the ones in the other tunnel behind the borer. They will try to catch us between them. What happens then is what matters." He smiled at Max. "Good that you were able to handle that bolt of charged plasma they let loose."

Because the tunnel was absolutely straight, the bolt fired from the Moth transport had continued onward after passing through the illusory devil that Casper had placed before the craft. Had Max not dealt with it, it would have crashed into their own transport and possibly damaged it. Not to mention messing up their hair a little!

Max blew a burst of air through his lips and nodded. "Good thing it was just the one. These Moth do play around with a lot of power."

"This has turned into a hell of a vacation," Kippy said. "But I can't decide if it's been fun yet, or not."

Charlie smiled and put an arm around his boyfriend. "They say any vacation you live through is a good one. But it might make the fireworks seem tame when we get home."

"Oh, Charlie, that's not true. Fireworks are only really exciting when you're little." But Kippy winked at that. "As an adult, they're a beautiful reminder of what we're celebrating. Our freedom."

"Such as it is," Ricky agreed. "But I'll take what we have over what a lot of our planet has, any day of the week."

"So will I," Charlie agreed. "There's always room for improvement in any society. But if you start with one that kinda works, the hardest part is over."

Kippy sighed. "Okay. I do love fireworks. I don't want to miss them."

Max smiled at that. "You may get to see some before we get back home, Kip."

"Fought war for freedom ourselves," Sefton said, nodding. "Very bad thing. But survived to be better." He smiled. "Then find Engris. Best sort of freedom there is."

"It is an idea that has merit," Durapar agreed. "A place where you either get along with others and treat them with respect, or you don't get to stay. There is a sort of a benevolent tyranny associated with this idea, but it is one I have always gotten along with. It is my nature to like others. To be sociable. My life on Engris has been a happy one."

"We like the place, too," Charlie said. "It manages to combine some wild and weird with a lot of serenity. I could see retiring to Engris, someday."

"With me?" Kippy asked, his eyes wide.

Charlie smiled. "Of course, with you. Unless you don't want to go there." He sighed. "Then, I guess, I'll just be wherever you are."

"Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things." Kippy sighed and snuggled closer. "But I love Engris, too."

"You have a long time to decide," Adrian said. He smiled at Ricky. "Just like we do."

Ricky pouted a moment, but then smiled. "I've already decided. I'll be where you are, too."

Max raised a hand. "You guys are something. But maybe we can hold off on the sweet stuff until a little later?"

"Party pooper," Kippy said, but smiled.

Max returned the smile. "I love you, too, Kip. But we need to be ready for anything when we reach the control center."

"Any idea how much time we'll have before the Moth arrive after us?" Charlie asked.

"Couple of minutes for the ones in the bore, I think. Maybe even three or four. The ones behind us can be there almost as soon as we are, if they want. We'll need to worry about them first, but they may wait to do anything until the others arrive."

"There will also be the borer to deal with," Ragal pointed out. "From the way the one we have already encountered performed, I would view it as one additional war machine set against us."

"Yeah." Max nodded. "I can paste that thing to the ceiling if I have to, though. It's just a machine. I really don't want to be killing off a buncha Moth, though."

Durapar chuckled. "Treating the Moth with forbearance will be a new experience for them. They like to muscle their way into places. Being treated as mere irritants won't sit well with them."

"Tough," Max said, unsympathetically. "They're trespassing here, far as I'm concerned. Pain in the ass people."

Charlie grinned at that. "Why, Max, are you getting curmudgeonly in your old age?"

The elf laughed at that. "Nah. Just tired of people that are supposed to be advanced actin' like a buncha bandits. Reminds me of them Beltracians. Nasty crowd, they were."

Durapar gawked at that. "You knew them? Personally? They're long extinct!"

"Yeah. We had a run in with them a while back. Wound up having to toss one of their armory planets into the local sun. Tell you about it later, when there's time."

The Andaleesian's blue eyes were huge in wonder. "I should say so!"

Charlie waved a hand. "You were saying something a moment ago about us digressing all over the place?"

Max's eyes twinkled at that. "Yep. Sorry."

Ragal closed his eyes a moment. "I am supposing that the control center here will be identical to the one back on Engris. As far as positioning, too."

"I think Eseffa would have said something if they were in any way different," Charlie agreed.

Ragal nodded. "Then when we arrive, we will be across the room from the crystalline form where we have to install the defensive mind. We may need to cross that very large chamber with the Moth present."

"They already can't find us with their sensor stuff," Max said. "Only be a new tweak to bend light off of us in random directions so that they can't see what we really look like, either."

"But you can't make us invisible?" Charlie asked.

"No, I could. But it works both ways, Charlie. Make us completely invisible, and we can't see out, either. Better to just bend up the light that strikes us everywhere but our eyes. To them, if they even see us, we'll look like blobs of color. They won't know what they're lookin' at."

"Is there a reason you don't wish them to see us?" Kippy asked. "They don't know our kind."

"T'ath does," Max countered. "And even though he destroyed the Earth's location, he knows the general area of space we come from. A dedicated search would eventually locate our sun. I don't wanna give these Moth any reason to come lookin'. Make 'em sacred enough, and they may try somethin'."

That was food for thought. Charlie's own belief was that T'ath had not told anyone of his strange encounter with unknown aliens, except perhaps to warn other barons that there were power-users out there to be wary of. T'ath would walk the line between warning and admission of his defeat at the hands of Charlie and the others. It was not the Moth way to give up any advantage if possible.

Casper held up the box containing the defensive mind. "This one seems ready to act. It considers the Moth problem to be urgent, because most of the planet's defenses are geared toward keeping anyone from landing in the first place. There's a lot less it can do once a ship is on the ground."

"But it can get them to leave, right?" Max asked. "Otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels here."

"It can get them to go, yes." Casper closed his eyes, and turned the box in his hands. "And once the ship is up, it can kick them a long way from here. I think it plans to start Lyrgris moving randomly in the Cooee after that, to keep anyone from just stumbling across it again."

"Makes sense to me." Max looked satisfied. "Just so what we're doing counts."

"It will." Casper opened his eyes."Maybe once this place is running, it can become another haven like Engris. We can talk to Eseffa and Jorli about that, huh?"

"Sure." Max smiled. "There ain't never enough safe places to go in this universe."

Kippy looked from face to face, and suddenly smiled. Then he snuggled up to Charlie once again. "I've made up my mind about this vacation. I'm having fun!"

"We'll let them arrive at the machine space ahead," Onath told Misola over the com. "You will slow to a stop as that happens. I want to give anyone aboard that other transport time to get off. Then you will proceed at maximum acceleration to the chamber, and deploy your troops. You will then only be a minute or two behind them. "

"Yes, commander. And what are your orders then?"

Onath's eyes glared at him from the transport's console. "We will have to see what circumstances are in play at the time, Misola. There is simply no way to know just now. But I don't want you or your people to open fire on these others without a direct command from me. Understand?"

"Yes, commander."

"Good. The transport containing the other squad will be there shortly after your own arrival. D'eerth is in command there. You know him?"

"We attended training together. Yes, I know him. A good man."

"He is under the same orders as you. Your team and his will be linked in the com web just before you arrive. You can coordinate basic actions with him."

"Very well. I understand."

Onath grunted, and his face disappeared for the moment. The active duty icon faded from the display. Misola chanced switching to the private channel and paged Tif'tok. "What do you think?"

"I think this Onath could get us killed," the other man returned. "But his plan so far seems logical enough. Without knowing even who we face, or what capabilities this enemy possesses, it is impossible to plan in more detail."

"I hope this is worth it," Misola returned. "It was nice to consider wealth and a rise in status, but what good is it if we are too dead to enjoy it?"

Tif'tok made an amused sound. "I have some confidence that things may work out. Our enemy had the opportunity to finish us back in the tunnel, I think. But he chose not to do so. Or, he could not. Perhaps he did not like the pulse cannon. Either way, it suggests that we will not be totally helpless against a superior foe. I am willing to at least wait and see."

Misola considered that. "You may have something there. Very well, I'm returning to the command channel."

"I think that's wise."

Max sat down in the seat across from Casper and smiled. "Feeling okay?"

"Yes. A little nervous."

The elf nodded. "That's normal." He leaned forward. "You did a great job back there. Got me thinking. We still have some time before we get where we're goin'. I was thinking we might use that time to spook the Moth a little more."

Casper's gray eyes held delight. "The ones behind us?"

"Not them. By the way they're actin' now, they're already spooked. I was thinking about some of the others."

Casper closed his eyes a moment, then reopened them. "I can sense the ones in that second transport pretty clearly. The ones up on the surface are less distinct. I think they're too far away."

Max waved a hand, and Kip and Adrian came over.

"I wanna try somethin'. If Ragal and Horace will get up a minute and let these two guys sit on either side of you, we can check out my idea."

Ragal unfolded his lanky form from the seat and stood up. "I'm interested already!"

Horace also got to his feet, and he and Ragal sat in vacant seats beside Max, while Kip and Adrian sat down beside Casper. The others crowded around and found seats or stood where they could watch.

"What are we doing?" Charlie asked.

Max scratched his chin in thought. "I want to see if Kippy and Adrian can extend Casper's range to the whole planet."

"Whoa!" Ricky said, grinning. "Power move!"

"Didn't we already learn that?" Durapar asked. "Kip and Adrian helped Casper with his illusion just a moment ago."

"That was with projection," Max informed him. "Numbers of minds and duration, mostly. I want to see if they can also push Casper's ability to interact with other minds to cover the whole planet." He nodded. "These guys down here with us are the foot soldiers. I wanna see if we can reach the commanders."

Charlie laughed. "Topple the head, and the whole body follows?"

"Yep. I wanna get these guys on the edge, so that when the time comes to push them off the planet, they want to go."

"Or at least be willing," Kippy said. He dropped a hand on Casper's arm. "Come on, Adrian. Grab his other arm and let's do this."

The boys closed their eyes, and both nodded. "We're ready," Adrian said.

Max patted Casper's knee. "Now see what you can sense."

Casper closed his eyes. "Well...the Moth in that other transport - the one in the bore - they're really clear now. I sense other Moth at a few other places inside the planet and on the surface....and there's the ship. But...something isn't right. I can sense them, but I also feel I can't reach them."

Max frowned. "Well, it was just a thought."

"Wait a minute," Ricky said, getting up. He circled the row of seats and stood behind Casper, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Try again, Casper."

The little alien nodded, and closed his eyes. "Oh...I think it's still the same."

Ricky put his other hand on Adrian, waited a moment, and then transferred it to Kip. "Ah. I think I can see what's happening." He opened his eyes, lifted his hand from Casper, and then patted Kip and Adrian each on a shoulder. "You guys are supplying gobs of power, but its just sort of a general application. Like offering someone help, but not saying what kind. Casper needs power that's aimed right at his ability to act on the minds of others at a distance. You guys need to think that when you offer the power."

Adrian's eyes opened, and he turned his head to look up at his boyfriend. "Is that my Rick, I just heard?"

Max laughed. "Rick's a magic mechanic, remember? He can see what's up with the processes, and even fix them."

Kippy opened his eyes and looked back at Rick. "I'm not sure I know how to send power for something like that. I don't know what it feels like."

"Me, either," Adrian confirmed.

"Oh." Ricky frowned, and then laid his hand on Casper's shoulder. "Try again, Casp."

Casper closed his eyes. " I can barely sense the ones on the surface."

But Ricky smiled. "Yeah, but now I know what it feels like." He lifted his hands and transferred one each to Kip and Adrian. "Feel this, guys!"

Kip and Adrian closed their eyes, and both boys immediately smiled.

"That tickles!" Kippy breathed, sighing.

"I'll say," Adrian agreed. "I'm gonna save that feeling for another time, I think!"

Rick rolled his eyes, but lifted his hands and circled back around to his former position. "Just use that tickle when you're feeding power to Casper, okay?"

They made the attempt again, and this time Casper gasped. "Oh! They're...they're so clear!"

Max grinned. "You got 'em?"

"Yes. The ones on the ship, even." Casper opened his eyes. "They ordered a lot of their people to come back. There's only a few left on the planet."

Kippy and Adrian were smiling. "I could do this all day," Kippy said. "It feels great!"

Adrian just smiled, his expression saying it all.

Max clapped his hands together. "Okay. Let's see what we can do!"

"Heavy thing," Cis'tat complained, as he and Ranti lashed the alien device to the flat bed of the floater. The antigravity cart ignored the weight, floating on its field a hand's breadth above the floor of the chamber, but Cis'tat figured he'd be feeling the strain to his muscles in the morning. "I'm not as young as I used to be."

Ranti found that amusing. "Didn't think you'd have to be hefting these artifacts yourself, did you?"

"No. Having all the support staff recalled seems premature to me. Either we all return to the ship, or we all stay on site, I would have said. Leaving us here to do the work alone is poor planning."

Cis'tat glanced around the chamber, lit by work lights and almost empty now. They had removed the largest pieces of machinery here - or, at least they thought they were machines - and only these smaller devices still had to be taken back to the surface and stored in the dome. They all seemed to go together, all parts of one larger machine, perhaps, and to leave even one behind might lead to years of delay in understanding their operation. Cis'tat grunted. "I'm a specialist in foreign technologies, not a dock laborer."

Ranti looked over at the two security guards, standing near the mouth of the bore from the surface, and laughed. "We could have gotten them to help us load."

Cis'tat made a sound of contempt. "Ruffians! We're trying to salvage these things, not break them."

Ranti laughed again. "Shh! They'll hear you!"

Cis'tat looked over at the guards again, and grunted. "I hate working with security forces. All they ever think about are--"

He broke off then, his eyes going wide. Within the tunnel bore, just behind the two guards, something moved.

Ranti, sensing the change in his companion's demeanor, turned to see what the older Moth scientist was looking at.

Within the tunnel bore, something large appeared, striding purposefully towards them. It was immense, almost as tall as the bore itself, a giant in steel armor, and with a fearsome visage from which two red-ember eyes stared out at them.

"Oh!" Cis'tat squeaked.

Ranti was a little more eloquent. "Look out!" he yelled, waving his arms at the two Moth soldiers.

They were fast, Ranti could say that much for them. The two men spied Ranti waving and calling, glanced back into the bore of the tunnel, and then both of them were dancing backwards, their rifles coming up to bear on the new arrival. That apparition stormed out of the tunnel and looked around the chamber, and then stomped a foot on the ground with sufficient force to make the whole chamber tremble.

"Thieves!" it roared, in just an incredible voice, one so loud and so angry that it made Cis'tat cringe. "Invaders! Grave robbers! This is intolerable!"

One of the two Moth guards was talking away on his com now, obviously reporting this amazing event. The other looked like he'd rather be elsewhere, but kept his rifle aimed at the huge alien that had come seemingly from nowhere. The guards backed right up to Cis'tat and Ranti, and one of them indicated that the two scientists should continue to move in the same direction.

"But the way out is that way!" Cis'tat yelled, pointing towards the tunnel bore. And the monstrous alien.

The soldier said something rude, and to the effect that if Cis'tat wanted to go that way, he would not be stopped. Cis'tat took another look at the huge, enraged alien, and started moving back towards the rear of the chamber, along with the others.

The huge alien approached the antigravity cart now, and looked down at the device in place on its bed. "This belongs to us!" One huge hand came down, grabbed the machine on the floater, and lifted it - and the floater itself - high into the air. The alien shook the pair with a force that snapped the securing straps and flung the floater across the room, where, fortunately, its tiny mind righted it and returned it to a safe place just above the floor. The alien examined the machine in its hand, and then carefully placed it upon the floor.

"Get out! Leave now!" the giant alien resumed. "Leave, or pay the penalty for your sacrilege!"

A small flurry of dusty air appeared around the great being, swirled upwards, and it suddenly vanished as quickly as it had come.

Teel'th listened to the report on the com with some feeling of alarm. He gazed about the dark interior of the spirit dome, feeling now that he and Kor'ti were not nearly as well placed as he had only moments ago imagined. When they had replaced Misola and Tif'tok on guard detail here so that those two could lead the first security team in the tunnels below, they had considered themselves unfortunate to be left out of the good things that might come of that venture. But after seeing the report of the giant alien that had accosted the transport in the tunnel, Teel'th had changed his opinion to one of relief that he was not down below with the others. This world unsettled him in a way that no other ever had. The reports that there might be life here after all had only honed that disquiet to a keen edge.

"Stay aware," he said now to Kor'ti. "This place sings of trouble."

"My senses say the same," the other Moth agreed. "I am a strong predictor. I feel that we are not safe here, even this close to the ship."

Teel'th let his eyes scan the vast chamber, looking for anything that might be out of place. "Damnable shadows everywhere! What is wrong with these lights!"

Almost as if in answer to that question, a new light appeared. It came from the midpoint well, that large opening at the exact center of the dome that had been determined to reach all the way to the planet's core several thousand miles beneath their feet. Unlike the illumination of the work lights, which was sharp and brilliant, this glow was softer, and whiter. Only the distance to the well allowed it to be seen at all, as the work lights did not reach that far.

"Something is happening," Teel'th said softly.

He and Kor'ti both raised their rifles, and drew together to mass their firepower if needed. Teel'th immediately called in, and linked the command center on Ehiztari with what his helmet imager was seeing. Onath seemed unsurprised at the report, and simply commanded the two Moth to remain quiet and see what happened as they watched.

The glow in the center well intensified, and then an amazingly large creature rose into view. Kor'ti grunted in amazement at the size of the alien, and Teel'th felt the man draw back.

"Hold," he whispered, though he felt like retreating himself.

The apparition spied them, and drifted their way with alarming speed. The creature settled to the floor among the boxed and crated devices removed from the interior of the planet, and bent to inspect one. An enormous hand came out, tapped the top of the crate seemingly lightly, but the crate deformed immediately and the side popped open, revealing the device within.

The alien turned blazing eyes upon the two Moth. "Is nothing sacred! Thieves! You will pay dearly for this!"

Teel'th felt the ire of the creature. Never before had he felt the urge to run like he did now.

"Try to talk to it," Onath's voice came in his ear. "Ask it what it wants."

Teel'th nodded, mostly to himself, and stepped forward. "What do you wish here?"

"Wish?" The voice was enormous. "I wish for nothing! I demand. Either you thieves leave this world at once, or pay the price for your misdeeds!"

Teel'th looked over at Kor'ti. "He wants us to leave."

Kor'ti raised the barrel of his rifle slightly. "We cannot."

The huge alien bent towards them with amazing speed. "Oh, you will leave! Either on your own, or with our help. Mark my words!"

A thin breeze started at the creature's feet, became a dusty whirlwind that rose upwards, and then the creature was gone.

"It's gone," Teek'th said, in disbelief.

"I can see that," Onath returned over the link. "Good work. You frightened it off."

Teel'th couldn't help it: he laughed.

"You find that amusing, soldier?" Onath asked then.

Teel'th was not so far gone that he did not sense the danger in Onath's question. "No, commander," he managed. "I was just expressing...satisfaction at running the fellow off."

"Good work. You two remain alert. I'll be back to you shortly."

After Onath was gone, Teel'th looked over at Kor'ti. The other man shook his head: don't say it!

"Reports are coming in from all the remaining teams on the planet now," Mor'ath said, looking unhappy. "Either the same being that accosted Misola's transport is now visiting each of our still active sites...or there are more than one of these creatures."

Kil'brith was silent a moment, digesting this news. "And while the men all report seeing the same alien, the video of these encounters reveals to us only this same, swirling, misty apparition. We are missing something here."

Mor'ath leaned forward. "This latest apparition seemed to rise form the core of the planet. That is something to think about."

Kil'brith raised a hand for silence. "And yet, no one has been harmed. None of our people touched at all. That means something to me." He looked over at Onath. "Either this foe is unwilling to inflict direct damage to our forces...or he cannot."

Onath considered that. "Possibly. But maybe these people believe in warning their adversaries first. That certainly sounded like what was happening."

Mor'ath grunted. "More like they were trying to scare our people, I'd say."

"You may have it," Kil'brith agreed. "This could very well be a campaign designed to generate fear. And it does seem to be working. We have withdrawn most of our personnel, and we are even considering withdrawing from this world completely."

"We act out of caution, not fear," Onath protested.

"And yet, the outcome is the same." Kil'brith was quiet a moment, thinking. "The prize here is a great one. Too valuable to dismiss casually. Yet I will not chance losing Ehiztari to a superior foe just as an act of stubbornness." He turned to Onath. "Opinion?"

"For now? Perhaps withdraw all non-necessary personnel to the ship. That would be everyone but my two security details within the planet below. And then? And then we simply play out this game and see where it goes."

Kil'brith nodded, and turned to Mor'ath. "And you?"

Mor'ath was not terribly surprised to be asked. He and Kil'brith had a good working relationship. Yet this was a command decision of great importance...

"Well, I tend to agree with Onath. We bring back everyone but his two units, and prepare to leave if necessary."

Kil'brith grunted. "Is that all?"

Mor'ath had not added what his senses were telling him, but this seemed an invitation to do so. "This foe is dangerous, commander. The ability to project force to any location while remaining completely undetectable is a lethal pairing. One we cannot counter."

Kil'brith sat back at that. "My experience tells me the same thing. This foe is playing with us. That is generally a trait of an enemy that knows he holds the ultimate power. And yet...I cannot quite accept everything we have seen at face value. Something is off. I just don't know what it is. For us to run in the face of some grand bluff is also unacceptable."

Onath tapped his fingers against his armrests restlessly. "So then? I will need to inform my people."

Kil'brith turned to Mor'ath. "Recall all personnel not assigned to the two transport security details below. Inform Misola and Deer'th of our decision. Warn them again against allowing unprovoked gunfire. We don't want to start a shooting war with an enemy that may easily outgun us."

"Yes, commander."

"And notify everyone aboard ship that I am activating the ship-wide dampers. If we can in any way counter the mental forces our foe seems able to wield, I want to do it, even at the price of reducing our own effectiveness."

"Immediately, commander"

Kil'brith sat back. "And then we follow our new friends to their destination, and see what they are up to."

"D'eerth? Com check."

"I have you, Misola. Good to hear from you again."

"The same for me. We are only a few minutes away from the destination. You would look to be approximately two minutes behind us."

"Yes. We intend to push that, if possible, and arrive sooner. We have to hang back from the borer some miles, or the heat is excessive. So once the borer breaks through into the chamber, we intend to accelerate through the tunnel at full speed until we exit, so as not to pick up too much heat. I cannot land men from a red-hot port."

"That will be dangerous," Misola returned. "You will need to do a full inertia dump in order to stop properly once you exit the tunnel. That will send a considerable pulse of energy throughout the chamber."

"It will be as light, which is as harmless as I can make the conversion. I've instructed the borer to get out of the way immediately after it breaks through. That will clear the way for us to emerge safely."

Misola considered the plan, and found it more than a little risky. It relied too much on timing, which was one of the hardest things to maintain in a full battle situation. But if the alternative was the transport picking up so much heat from the fresh bore that it was unsafe for the troops to deploy, there wasn't much choice. It seemed more dangerous for D'eerth and his troops to be stuck inside the transport while its hull cooled to a safe temperature, than to rush an emergence from the tunnel at full speed, and then to convert the inertial impulse across to some other form of energy.

Misola grunted, glad not to have to consider that complication for his own operation, too. "You've followed the thread of this encounter thus far?"

"Yes. We would seem to know as much as you, minus your actual encounter with the foe in the tunnel. I'm afraid all we saw in the record was a strange mist moving about before your transport. It did look to be alive somehow, though."

"It acted alive, certainly," Misola returned.

Deer'th grunted. "And now we know that your team and ours are the only forces left on the planet. Everyone else has returned to the ship. We are now key to what happens next."

Misola pointed a finger at Deer'th in the display. "I would only warn you not to immediately believe what you see. But not to discount it, either."

"We think at this point that appearances do not matter," Tif'tok added. "It is the capabilities of the foe to be considered. Appearances notwithstanding, they would appear to be considerable."

"Agreed," Misola continued. "Have you scanned the destination chamber?"

"Yes," D'eerth confirmed. "It's large. The scanners are oddly diffused, but there would seem to be objects blocking line of sight across the expanse. Take care in your movements. There will be places for the enemy to hide, and scanners may not be totally reliable."

Misola made a sound of contempt. "This entire world is not totally reliable. I will be glad to have this mission completed."

"Agreed. Time to focus. Fare well in this mission, Misola."

"Fare well in this mission, D'eerth."

"Almost there," Charlie said, his eye on the transport's console. "Remember. When we've stopped and the side door has opened, everyone get away from the transport as quickly as possible. Remember those big crystal things that we saw in the other command center on Engris? It would be good to put some of them between us and the Moth."

"Which way will the other group of Moth come from?" Adrian asked.

"The borer will come through somewhere to our right," Max said. "That works for us, because the command crystal we have to find is across the room and to the left."

"Casper and Horace and I will go there immediately," Ragal announced. "It is imperative that we place the defensive mind as quickly as possible."

Casper clutched the small box to his chest and nodded.

He looks scared, Charlie thought sympathetically, seeing the light of anxiety in Casper's gray eyes. He sure knew what that felt like!

He dropped a hand on Casper's shoulder and squeezed it. "We'll be okay."

Casper smiled up at him, and made an obvious attempt to relax. "It's too bad they turned on that damper on the ship. I would have liked to put a scare in those commanders, too."

Kippy bent down and circled an arm around the boy, and gave him a fond squeeze. "You did great. And you did scare them. That's why they turned that machine on!"

"I agree," Ragal said. "They have limited their own abilities in order to limit ours as well." He smiled down at Casper. "A tactical victory, at the least."

"I'll go last when we get out," Max said then. "Let me be the tail end, because I can put up the best defense against these guys if they catch us too soon."

"You be careful," Kippy admonished, straightening. "I'm expecting you at my birthday party next week. Understand?"

Max laughed. "Your birthday isn't next week, Kip."

"You know what I mean!"

Max nodded, his eyes shining. "Yep. You guys be careful, too. But I think we got this."

They all stood, and moved to the side entry of the transport. A light appeared ahead, the end of the tunnel, and in a moment the transport slid out into the open and slowed to a stop in a shallow channel in the floor. The door whispered to the side, and Charlie led the way out. "Okay, let's go."

They emerged, turned and headed off across the vast chamber. Ragal picked up Casper and took off, with Horace following behind. Charlie and the others jogged after them.

The huge crystals here were not lit like the ones back in the command chamber on Engris. No colorful glow indicating things happening. The only light was a soft glow from the ceiling, which gave enough light to see by but scarcely enough to discern any great detail. But the crystals here looked different somehow, possibly because the fields that were a part of their operational make up were inactive.

"It doesn't look the same as on Engris," Charlie said immediately. "Nothing's working."

"Everything is in the same place, though." Ragal called over his shoulder. "Just follow us."

But Max countermanded that order. "Everybody hold up for a second."

Ragal stopped immediately, and Horace almost bumped into him. Charlie and the others stopped, too, and turned to look at Max.

"The Moth transport just came in behind ours," the elf explained. "I'm adding the sight blocker to our sensor screens. It's going to take a minute for you to get used to them."

Charlie turned to look at Kip then, and got a last, sweet smile from his boyfriend before he shimmered and disappeared into a cloud of manic, softly glowing fireflies. It wasn't quite what Charlie had expected, and it was disconcerting, to say the least. Despite the fact that he could see the chamber clearly enough, there was a peripheral glow around his field of vision that made it almost seem like he was walking in a tunnel.

"Is this how it's going to be? I hope I don't trip over my own feet!" Charlie looked around. Their entire group now glowed similarly, and he couldn't tell who was who. Well...Ragal was obvious by his height, and Sefton stood out by his size. Durapar was smaller than anyone else save Casper. But the humans - and Max - all looked about the same.

"It'll settle," Max said. "New stuff. Just wait a second. It's important, Charlie. Earth's safety is--"

Max suddenly gasped, and his glowing shape spun around. Charlie looked over in that direction then, and saw a section of the wall that was turning red alarmingly fast. A wave of heat washed over him, and Max threw up a hand. The heat moderated, and then lessened.

"Everybody, move back!" Max called, coming towards them. "Quick! Go that way!"

They turned and ran. A glow appeared over Charlie's shoulder, and he cast a quick glance back. The far wall was now a circle of intense white light, and waves of heat shimmered in the air between them. That Max was keeping the heat away seemed obvious.

"Stop!" Max yelled then. "Everybody hit the deck!"

Charlie stopped and dropped, too well-trained now by past events to even momentarily question a command from Max.

He turned as he dropped, watching the far wall, and so saw as he hit the floor how the intense circle of light puffed outward into a roar of gas and hot vapor. Something bulleted through the opening then, and immediately turned towards them. The borer! It skittered towards them at amazing speed, appendages on the side waving like the legs on a centipede.

"No ya don't!" Max yelled, and Charlie saw Max's prone figure raise a hand.

The borer stopped with a suddenness that was amazing, and drew back away from them, despite the motions of its many legs. It slid back across the floor with a screech of sound and arrived back before the tunnel opening, just as something else large emerged from it. The new arrival clipped the rear of the borer, resulting in a horrendous crash that assaulted Charlie's ears, and which was accompanied by a flash of unbearable light. In the microsecond it took Max's shield to deal with the amazing burst, Charlie's eyes were dazzled. He closed them reflexively, but blobs of light and color now danced before him.

There were more crashing sounds, and a screeching, grating roar that passed to the side of them, and finally stopped somewhere behind them.

A boom echoed throughout the massive chamber, dropping in volume with each cycle, and then a sudden silence descended upon them.

"Charlie!" Kippy yelled, coming closer. "Are you okay?"

"Damn!" Charlie heard Max getting to his feet then. "Anybody hurt?"

Charlie sat up, blinking his eyes, the blobs of color slowly waning, until he could start to see again. Another glowing shape was immediately by his side. "Charlie? Is that you?" It was Kip's voice, sounding terribly concerned.

"Yeah. I'm okay, I think. The flash blinded me a little.'s getting better."

Kippy dropped a hand, felt around, found Charlie's shoulder, and squeezed it with all his might. "I thought you were hurt, by the way you yelled!"

Charlie blinked at that. He didn't remember yelling at all.

"I'm okay," he reassured, finding Kip's hand and squeezing it. "Everybody else okay?"

He heard Ricky and Adrian respond, and a confused call from Durapar. Sefton grunted out something, the gist of which was that he seemed to be in one piece. But then nothing else.

Alarm took hold of Charlie. "Ragal? Guys?"


But then Durapar spoke again. "I think they jumped up and went on after the crash. Ragal, carrying Casper, and Horace with them. Hard to make out the illuminated shapes, but I think it was all three of them.

"Was all three," Sefton agreed, his large glowing shape coming nearer.

Charlie's vision was returning now. "What the hell happened?"

"My fault," Max said, sounding uncharacteristically subdued. "When that borer thing came at us, I pushed it back. The transport in the tunnel must have put on a hell of a burst of speed at the last moment. It came out and rammed the back of the borer, sending it spinning past us. The transport shed its momentum at the exact same time, as a pulse of light, which was what blinded you. But the damage is done. The borer hit some of those crystal things and smashed them to pieces. I hope I didn't just ruin this whole mission."

Charlie shook his head a moment. "Maybe we should get after Ragal and the others. Won't the Moth come now?"

Max came over and stood beside him. "Good idea. Better get up, and let's go,"

"Stupid idea, making us all into glow worms," Kippy chided. "Just makes it harder to walk around this dump."

Charlie smiled at that, sensing the relief in his boyfriend's voice. He got to his feet, his vision mostly back to normal now, and they all headed off.

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